A bill to deal with the immigration surge on the U.S.-Mexico border won a temporary reprieve in the Senate Wednesday as lawmakers maneuvered to offer some response to the crisis before adjourning for the summer.
Senators voted 63-33 to advance the $3.5 billion emergency spending bill over an initial procedural hurdle. But with Republicans and a few Democrats opposed, there was little expectation that the legislation would ultimately prevail with only days left before Congress' annual August recess.
Even if it did, the Senate bill is at odds with a competing measure in the House that has a smaller price tag and includes contentious policy changes the Senate bill ignores. That measure drew a veto threat from the White House on Wednesday.
Republicans called the Senate measure a blank check for President Barack Obama's failed policies and demanded policy changes opposed by Democrats to send the migrants back home more quickly. The bill also includes hundreds of millions of dollars to fight western wildfires and $225 million to help Israeli self-defense, but lawmakers were making plans to deal with the money for Israel separately.
Still, Republicans and Democrats alike said the crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American youths crossing illegally into South Texas demanded a response. Some Republicans voted in favor of moving forward Wednesday, saying they wanted to open debate on the measure in order to be able to offer amendments, though Democrats were expected to oppose such efforts.
"My constituents back home don't understand why in the world we would leave without fixing this problem," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "If we don't do anything to deal with the causes or deal with a remedy for this growing humanitarian crisis, it's going to get worse."
Cornyn was among 11 Republicans who voted to proceed with the bill. Two red-state Democrats in tough re-election fights — Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — voted "no."
The bill includes $2.7 billion for more immigration judges, detention facilities, enforcement measures and other steps to deal with the tens and thousands of youths who've been arriving in South Texas without their parents or visas to enter the U.S. It does not include legal changes to permit authorities to turn unaccompanied Central American youths around at the border without deportation hearings that existing law guarantees — a GOP demand that Democrats say would send the kids back to terrible conditions.
Given that disagreement, there appeared to be no clear route to compromise.
"They should have their day in court," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
House Republicans, meanwhile, were hoping to act on their own solution, a $659 million measure that leaves out the money for wildfires and Israel but includes the legal change to send migrant youths home quickly and would also dispatch National Guard troops to the border.
Although the White House has backed legal changes to deport the kids more quickly, a statement of administration policy said the House legislation "could make the situation worse, not better," by setting arbitrary timelines that could create backlogs and hurt due process.
It was unclear whether House Speaker John Boehner would be able to count on enough support to pass the bill as he aimed for a vote Thursday. Many conservatives remained skeptical, and some outside conservative groups were urging lawmakers to stand opposed.
Tea party Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas summoned House conservatives to a meeting Wednesday night to strategize. Cruz has argued that no bill should pass unless it repeals a two-year-old Obama directive granting work permits to immigrants brought here illegally as kids, and some House conservatives were issuing similar demands.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid fomented conservative concerns by threatening to use the House bill as a vehicle to attach the Senate's comprehensive immigration overhaul bill, which the House has rejected.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived since October, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Many are fleeing vicious gangs and are trying to reunite with family members, but they also are drawn by rumors that once here, they would be allowed to stay.
The Homeland Security Department says overwhelmed border agencies will be running out of money in coming months, and Obama asked Congress to agree to provide $3.7 billion.