Congress

House approves Senate version of border bill after Pelosi yields

Speaker says she ‘reluctantly’ allowed vote to get assistance to border quickly

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, walks after speaking with reporters Thursday outside Speaker  Nancy Pelosi’s office about the agreement to take up the Senate border bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House cleared and sent to President Donald Trump the Senate version of supplemental aid legislation for strained border agencies dealing with a massive influx of migrants, ending a back-and-forth that threatened to upend lawmakers’ July Fourth recess plans.

The final vote was 305-102, with many Democrats joining Republicans in voting for the bill. The Democratic split was 129 in favor, 95 against; the Republican split was 176 for and 7 against.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a letter to colleagues before the vote, said that in order to get the assistance to the border quickly, the House would reluctantly vote on the Senate bill unamended.

“As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a Battle Cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth,” the California Democrat wrote.

“The children come first,” Pelosi added. “At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available. Therefore, we will not engage in the same disrespectful behavior that the Senate did in ignoring our priorities.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan tweeted that he will put the money to use almost immediately.

“The resources in the Senate bill can be deployed quickly to support the men and women of [the Homeland Security Department] in mitigating the humanitarian crisis at the border and ensure swift transfer of unaccompanied children into well-equipped Health and Human Services facilities. I will continue to work with Congress to pursue targeted changes to the immigration laws to address the pull factors driving the crisis,” McAleenan said.

Earlier Thursday, House Democratic party moderates had threatened to revolt against leadership plans to take up a package of changes to the Senate bill that would address progressives’ concerns, such as funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In addition, Pelosi spoke for just under an hour with Vice President Mike Pence, who assured her that the administration could implement some safeguards for children in emergency shelters that have not met certain licensing requirements.

A source familiar with the negotiations said Pelosi secured from Pence a promise to use administrative direction to accomplish two of the House goals: that members would be notified within 24 hours of the death of a child in U.S. custody, and that a 90-day time limit would be put on children spending time in the temporary housing centers known as “influx facilities.”

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in opening up the chamber Thursday morning, said he’d “table,” or send back, Pelosi’s proposed amendment, with a simple majority vote — a task made easier by the absence of several Democratic senators in Miami for the presidential primary debates. The White House was prepared to veto the House Democrats’ changes, administration officials said.

The division in the House Democrats’ ranks played out when the leadership abruptly pulled the plug on debate over the rule for consideration of the House’s proposed amendment to the Senate version, which had been approved in that chamber on an 84-8 vote Wednesday.

A senior administration official said Pence and Pelosi spoke for nearly 50 minutes. The official said Pence was clear in his request that the House move on the Senate package quickly without changes. But the official also said that Trump “has directed that the administration find opportunities to work within its executive power on some of the priorities that the speaker has highlighted, and the administration will make announcements in due course.”

Pence has been conducting negotiations with lawmakers over the border bill while Trump is in Japan at the G-20 summit.

Earlier in the day, Pelosi said she would prefer to have guidelines about how the government treats children in statute rather than just administrative language.

Political theater

In a show of political theater prior to Democrats’ decision to go into recess, House Rules ranking Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma yielded his time to one GOP colleague after another for unanimous consent requests to take up the Senate version without changes. These requests could not be entertained during a debate on the rule and were spurned by the chair.

“In the amount of time it took my friends on the other side of the aisle to get through their antics, we could have passed this bill,” House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said in response. “That’s what urgency looks like — not political theater. These kids that we are here to try to protect deserve more than grandstanding.”

The House amendment to the Senate bill would have reshuffled funding — adding money for humanitarian and processing needs, subtracting money from ICE and strengthening safeguards for children in government custody. The changes proposed by the Democrats would increase the gross total of the emergency funding $4.59 billion to $4.61 billion.

The Democrats’ amendment included 10 significant tweaks, some that included stricter oversight of the standards in which migrant children are detained. It would take away money for ICE and military operations at the border, but would add $200 million for a multi-agency pilot program “which is culturally, linguistically and religiously appropriate for children and families,” based on recommendations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The House amendment also would increase funding for local nonprofits and jurisdictions handling the care of migrants released from government custody from $30 million to $60 million.

An earlier House version of the bill, which passed in that chamber late Tuesday, was defeated the following day in the Senate on a 37-55 vote.

After that House bill was rejected, cracks in Democratic Caucus unity started to grow deeper. A senior Democratic aide close to the moderate wing of the caucus noted earlier in the day that some moderates, especially freshmen considered vulnerable for re-election in 2020, opposed some of the changes the amendment would make.

“Children are suffering at the border and we must act now to stop it,” tweeted Utah freshman Ben McAdams, who represents a Salt Lake City-area district that backed Trump in 2016. “The House should vote to approve the Senate version of the bill that addresses the Central American refugee crisis at the border and helps the kids living in unsafe and unacceptable conditions.”

Kellie Mejdrich, Katherine Tully-McManus, Lindsey McPherson, David Lerman contributed to this report.

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