Alien bill splits GOP, but VA measure sails

Posted: August 1, 2014 at 3:26 a.m.

House members head for the door Thursday on Capitol Hill after discussion on a border measure. With a five-week recess beginning this weekend, some GOP leaders vowed to try again today.

WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders were struggling Thursday evening to find support for a plan addressing an influx of Central American children at the U.S.-Mexico border, as some members blamed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for helping scuttle a vote on it earlier in the day.

Republicans met privately Thursday afternoon and will confer again this morning, said Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. Congress had intended to leave Washington on Thursday for a five-week break.

"We'll have the votes tomorrow" although leaders don't have enough votes now, Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama said as he left the party meeting.

Texas Republican Rep. Kay Granger, an author of the border measure, said she was expecting changes that would make parts of the legislation more specific, such as detailing who would pay for deploying the National Guard.

"Overall, we all agree we should stay until we get a vote," she said.

But Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, expressed doubts about reaching a quick consensus, joking that his colleagues might end up staying "until Christmas" at the rate they were moving.

Faring far better, a bipartisan, $16.3 billion funding measure for the Department of Veterans Affairs was sent to President Barack Obama for his signature after a Senate vote of 91-3.

A second compromise was in the works to prevent a cutoff in highway construction aid, and there were late negotiations aimed at clearing legislation to provide Israel with $225 million for its Iron Dome missile defense system.

Even if the House passes its bill, Congress is poised to leave Washington for the August break without enacting a plan to address the border crisis.

The Senate on Wednesday advanced a $2.7 billion plan, still less than the $3.7 billion Obama requested. But the differences in the two plans would still have to be reconciled.

Republicans and Democrats disagree about the amount of funding, and Democrats have rejected Republicans' bid to change a law to speed the deportation of children at the border.

House Republican leaders had repeatedly adjusted the $659 million border proposal in an effort to gain support from lawmakers who, like Cruz of Texas, are aligned with the small-government Tea Party movement.

"We've got a caucus of widely disparate views, and it never really jelled for 218 on our side," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., referring to the number of votes needed to pass a bill in the House.

Cruz this week was urging party members in the House to oppose the bill. Late Wednesday he met with about a dozen House Republicans over pizza and soda to discuss strategy about the proposal.

"Ted Cruz and a handful of Republicans have hijacked the party," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

"Speaker Cruz is deciding the agenda," said Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla.

Cruz has been an influential voice among House Republicans, urging them to oppose Obama's health care law at every turn. His encouragement to withhold support for government spending unless the law was defunded led to the partial government shutdown in October.

The blowup over the border bill occurred as the new leadership team of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is taking control after the defeat of outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a Tea Party-backed candidate in a Virginia primary vote.

"We are going to stay until we get it done," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said after the meeting. "There were a number of people who had indicated no, but they would now vote yes."

But House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said members of his party were already leaving Washington for the break.

Border Bickering

With the House in disarray, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Senate Democrats would press forward with an effort to pass their $2.7 billion spending bill.

"Obviously we'll try and pass ours," said Reid, a Nevada Democrat, adding that he wasn't surprised Boehner couldn't lock down the votes for the House bill. "It's not the first time."

Thursday's move in the House was similar to another failed attempt by Boehner to corral votes from his members. In December 2012 he canceled a vote on his proposal to extend expiring tax breaks for people making up to $1 million annually. That ultimately led to a fiscal compromise including a tax increase for individuals making more than $400,000 a year.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized Republicans for stripping down their bill repeatedly to appeal to holdout Tea Party members.

"It wasn't even bad enough for them," said Pelosi.

Boehner had said Tuesday that leaders had "a little more work to do" to gain support for the border bill.

Late Wednesday, Republican leaders agreed to allow a vote on a measure -- sought by Cruz and other party members -- to block Obama from expanding a 2012 executive order giving relief from immigration proceedings to certain foreigners who were taken to the U.S. illegally as children.

That agreement "cuts both ways" by picking up certain Republicans and losing others, said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.

The White House on Thursday denounced the effort to block Obama from extending deportation relief.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the House was driving an approach to immigration focused on rounding up and deporting 11 million illegal aliens and separating them from their families.

The renewed focus on the deportation relief comes amid an influx of new illegal aliens. About 57,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the border from Oct. 1, 2013, through June 15, double the total from the same time a year earlier. Most of the children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., said regarding the leaders' plan, "I don't really think it secures the border.

"I'm not really interested in supporting it because I don't think it does anything," Bentivolio said.

The White House seized on the House leadership's failure to get a vote and used it to justify Obama's plan to use executive actions on the border issue.

"By pulling their own bill, the House GOP once again proves why the president must act on his own to solve problems," senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer posted on Twitter.

Pfeiffer said last week that the humanitarian crisis on the border combined with a deadlock in Congress give Obama "broad permission to take what executive action we can to try to deal with the broken immigration system."

Democratic officials and immigration advocates have said Obama is considering using his executive authority to let millions of illegal aliens obtain work permits that would allow them to stay in the U.S. legally. Obama is expected to act before the November midterm congressional elections.

VA Bill Goes to Obama

Despite the bickering over the border proposal, lawmakers were able to agree Thursday night on a the bill responding to a VA scandal in which patients were shown to be subjected to long delays in care while agency officials covered up the facts.

The House approved the measure on a vote of 420-5 on Wednesday.

Most of the money will be used to let veterans seek care from outside physicians if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or face a long wait to see a doctor at one. The legislation also would allow the hiring of additional physicians for the VA and permit the firing of senior executives guilty of poor performance.

In a compromise bill, Democrats gave up their insistence on more funding, and Republicans agreed to let deficits rise by $10 billion as part of the agreement rather than seek offsetting cuts elsewhere.

More urgent was the bill to prevent a reduction in federal highway construction funding at the height of the summer construction season.

The Transportation Department set today as the date the Highway Trust Fund will no longer be able to provide all the aid promised, and estimated that states could expect an average reduction of 28 percent unless Congress acted by then.

The two houses have played legislative pingpong with the matter in recent days. But with time running out, the Senate was expected to pass a House-approved measure making $10.8 billion available, enough to last until next May.

Legislation providing money for Iron Dome, the Israeli missile-defense system, had yet to be made public late in the day. Instead, the funding was tucked inside a border security bill that was drafted by Senate Democrats and opposed by Republicans.

Officials said they expected that the Israeli money eventually would be broken out, and that if the Senate approved it, the House would agree.

Information for this article was contributed by Derek Wallbank, Erik Wasson, Michael C. Bender, Roxana Tiron, Richard Rubin, Roger Runningen and Kathleen Hunter of Bloomberg News; by Erica Werner, Joan Lowy, Alan Fram, Donna Cassata, Andrew Taylor and David Espo and staff members of The Associated Press; and by Ashley Parker of The New York Times.

A Section on 08/01/2014