Senate won’t take up House Democrats’ changes to border bill

The amendment calls for about 10 significant changes to the Senate bill, including adjustments in funding from the Senate bill

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., talk as they leave the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the Capitol on June 4, 2019. Lowey said changes made to a border aid package adopted Wednesday by House were aimed at getting the money to the border agencies as quickly as possible but making sure that the safety and proper care of migrants and children was not forgotten. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Billions of dollars for resource-constrained border agencies that are rapidly running out of cash due to an unprecedented surge of migrants is in jeopardy as the congressional clock counts down to the July Fourth recess.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned Thursday his chamber wouldn’t consider revisions demanded by House Democrats to the Senate-passed border supplemental, including cuts to Pentagon and Immigration and Customs Enforcement accounts.

“We will simply move to table it,” McConnell said in morning floor remarks, referring to a procedure that allows the Senate to send legislation back to the House unchanged with a simple majority vote. “It’s not going to happen.”

[Senate approves border bill; Pelosi and Trump talk compromise]

A senior administration official said President Donald Trump would veto the revised package unveiled by House Democrats early Thursday and reiterated support for the Senate version, which passed 84-8 on Wednesday.

The House Rules Committee early Thursday, on an 8-4 vote, adopted parameters for floor debate on the House amendments to the Senate bill (S 1900), which passed in that chamber as an amendment to an earlier House version of the House bill (HR 3401).

The amendment calls for about 10 significant changes to the Senate bill, which include tightening of language on the standards of care for migrant children in government custody and adjustments in funding from the Senate bill, including additions, and some reductions.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said in a statement the changes were aimed at getting the money to the border agencies as quickly as possible but making sure that the safety and proper care of migrants and children was not forgotten.

“The heartbreaking images and stories from the border make clear that we must combine that funding with protections for the rights and dignity of migrants,” Lowey said. This amendment improves the Senate’s bill and delivers urgently needed care for migrant children and families. After the House passes it, the Senate should take it up and send it to the President for his signature.”

Lowey said Speaker Nancy Pelosi expects to discuss the legislation with Vice President Mike Pence later Thursday.

[Senate border bill faces hurdles] After the Rules panel reported out its new rule for debate, Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said the timing of action wasn’t clear but that the House would likely take up the revised bill Lowey offered. “I expect we will get this done today, but I don’t know whether it will get enacted into law today,” McGovern said.

Republicans indicated they would rather pass the Senate bill to get something quickly to Trump’s desk.

“We have a bill, the Senate-passed bill, that the House could send today to the president,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said. “Instead, you’re going down a path that does not guarantee a presidential signature. Clearly the speaker is more concerned about maintaining the unity of her caucus” than passing legislation, Cole said.


Details of amendment

Revisions offered by House Democrats would boost the overall price tag of the Senate bill slightly, from $4.59 billion to $4.61 billion, as cuts to Pentagon and ICE are offset by additions elsewhere.

According to a committee summary, changes include:

  • An extra $200 million in funding for Customs and Border Protection for an integrated, multi-agency processing center pilot program, with participation by non-profit organizations, “which is culturally, linguistically and religiously appropriate for children and families.” House Democrats want a new, more multi-agency approach to processing migrants, as suggested by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
  • Another $30 million to the Senate bill in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency Emergency Food and Shelter Program, for a total of $60 million, to assist counties and towns experiencing a significant influx of migrants and nonprofit organizations serving those communities.
  • A reduction from the Senate’s $145 million to reimburse the Pentagon for its troops working along the U.S.-Mexico border to just $21 million to reimburse states for Army National Guard operating expenses in support of missions along the border.
  • The measure would cut $81 million in the Senate bill for ICE, which, according to the summary, “has consistently overspent and misspent taxpayer dollars.” The Senate added money for ICE investigations.

Democrats seem willing to drop provisions in their original bill that would have prevented Trump from blocking U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle countries in Central America, required translator services for all migrants encountered by Homeland personnel, and required written guidelines for the administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy, which requires some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated.

This new version retains provisions from the House’s original bill intended to set and ensure health and care standards for migrants at Customs and Border Patrol processing and holding facilities and at unlicensed HHS “influx facilities” where unaccompanied children are held. Such provisions include the following:

A requirement that CBP establish plans, standards, and protocols to better ensure the health and safety of children and adults in custody, including standards for medical care and medical emergencies; nutrition, hygiene, and facilities; and personnel training.

  • A 90-day limit for any unaccompanied child to spend at a temporary influx shelter, unless the secretary of Health and Human Services submits written notification to Congress that there is insufficient space at state-licensed facilities.
  • A requirement that HHS report to Congress within 24 hours if an unaccompanied child dies in custody.
  • Facilities caring for unaccompanied children would have to allow oversight visits from lawmakers without prior notice.

In his floor speech, McConnell said some of the policy restrictions “may be unobjectionable things the Trump administration may be able to help secure for them administratively.” But he appeared to view the cuts to the Pentagon and ICE as a bridge too far. “Some of these new demands would drag this bipartisan bill way back to the left,” McConnell said. “They want to claw back some of this badly needed money for the men and women down there on the front lines.”

Democratic divisions

After a morning caucus meeting to discuss next steps, some House Democrats seemed divided on the wisdom of taking up a bill they know won’t become law.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a senior member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, urged her leadership to simply take up the Senate-passed bill. “The Senate bill is a good bipartisan bill that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate,” Murphy said. “It is an emergency on the border right now. We need to get money to the border as soon as possible. The House needs to take up the Senate bill and pass it and get money to the border.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he backs the Senate bill, but would vote for the House’s revisions as well as a show of unity.

But there’s a real chance the House’s amendment could be defeated on the floor, a senior Democratic aide close to the moderate wing of the caucus said. Some moderates, especially freshmen considered vulnerable for re-election in 2020, oppose some of the changes the amendment would make.

“The ICE funding that would be cut would come from personnel and human trafficking [prevention]. How is cutting human trafficking a good vote for these members?” the aide said

With the House leadership seemingly intent on altering the Senate bill for the time being, there’s still no clear path forward for getting a bill to Trump’s desk that he would sign. Accordingly, top lawmakers are starting to downplay the prospect for leaving town on schedule.

“The House is not going home. We are going to stay in Washington for as long as it takes to get a humanitarian aid package that supports the children,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

In her weekly press conference, Pelosi did not rule out bringing up the Senate bill without changes if it comes to that.

“We’re looking forward to having further conversations on this matter. One step at a time,” she said.

Pelosi added she hadn’t been told by administration officials they object to the changes, and that Trump seemed open when she spoke with him Wednesday. “It’s a compromise. There may be some things we will yield on based on the objection they have,” Pelosi said.

Paul M. Krawzak, Lindsey McPherson, Kellie Mejdrich, Michael Teitelbaum and Chuck Conlon contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.