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.”
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.