Washington — Speaker Paul Ryan is pushing ahead with votes on rival House GOP immigration bills, but neither appears to have enough support for passage, forcing the Trump administration to consider executive action to stem the crisis of family separations at the border.
President Donald Trump has said he's "1 000 percent" behind both GOP bills, but restive House Republicans have all but begged GOP leaders for more clarity about what the president would actually sign. Public outcry is mounting over the family separations, but so far, there's no clear roadmap for Thursday voting on the emotional issue dividing Republicans.
With Congress struggling to respond, the White House appeared poised to step in. Trump told reporters at the White House Wednesday he would be "signing something" shortly on the family separations. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has drafted an executive action directing her department to keep families together after they are detained crossing the border illegally.
Ryan told reporters he prefers to see parents and children detained together in custody, as the GOP bills provide. "We do not want children taken away from their parents," he said.
More than 2,300 minors were separated from their families at the border from May 5 through June 9, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Under the administration's current policy, all unlawful crossings are referred for prosecution — a process that moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Under the Obama administration, such families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation.
As Republicans were meeting privately Wednesday, House Democrats brought about two dozen immigrant children to the chamber floor in an unusual morning protest that defied House rules as they condemned the separation of families at the border.
Democrats said the images of children being held in cages in border facilities, some crying for their parents, would be a moment remembered in U.S. history. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said Americans were "standing up for children, standing up for those who are in need."
As Gutierrez spoke, his microphone was cut off because the gathering in the chamber was considered a breach of decorum. Presiding Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., gaveled the House to order.
GOP lawmakers, increasingly fearful of a voter backlash in November, are struggling to find a way out of the problem created by the Trump administration's policy of treating all immigrants who cross the border in criminal, rather than civil, proceedings that result in family separations.
Many want more clarity from Trump before giving their backing to the broader immigration bills, which also offer different remedies for other provisions on protecting immigrant Dreamers from deportation and funding for Trump's border wall.
"Some of the members wanted to make sure the president is very visible in his support for both bills," said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which makes up more than half the GOP majority.
Walker said several lawmakers remained undecided, denying leadership of the majority needed for passage. They want to see Trump's support "constantly as we move forward — that he's out there vocally supporting what he believes is the best pathway forward," Walker said.
Trump met for about an hour at the Capitol late Tuesday to try to find a solution that both holds to his hardline immigration policy and ends the practice of taking migrant children from parents charged with entering the country illegally. While Trump held firm to his tough immigration stance, he acknowledged during the closed-door meeting that the coverage of family separations was taking a toll.
As Trump walked out of the session in the Capitol basement, he was confronted by about a half-dozen House Democrats, who yelled, "Stop separating our families!"
Leaders in both the House and Senate are struggling to shield the party's lawmakers from the public outcry over images of children taken from migrant parents and held in cages at the border. But they are running up against Trump's shifting views on specifics and his determination, according to advisers, not to look soft on his signature immigration issue, the border wall.
Even if Republicans manage to pass an immigration bill through the House, which is a tall order, the fight is all but certain to fizzle in the Senate.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader from New York, is adamant that Trump can end the family separations on his own and that legislation is not needed. Schumer said with most Americans against family separations, it's Republicans "feeling the heat on this issue, and that's why they're squirming." Without Democratic support, Republicans cannot muster the 60 votes needed to move forward on legislation.
In the House, the major change unveiled Tuesday would loosen rules that now limit the amount of time minors can be held to 20 days, according to a GOP source familiar with the measure. Instead, the children could be detained indefinitely with their parents.
The revision would also give the Department of Homeland Security the authority to use $7 billion in border technology funding to pay for family detention centers, said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and commented only on condition of anonymity.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Republicans are rallying behind a different approach. Theirs is narrow legislation proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would allow detained families to stay together in custody while expediting their hearings and possible deportation proceedings.
Cruz's bill would double the number of federal immigration judges, authorize new temporary shelters to house migrant families and limit the processing of asylum cases to no more than 14 days — a goal immigrant advocates say would be difficult to meet.