WASHINGTON -- House Republicans are considering a roughly $1.5 billion package that would help deal with the nation's ongoing border crisis, but there will be strings attached that could threaten the bill's support from Democrats and the chance for resolution before members leave town in August.
Key to the plan are changes to a 2008 law meant to protect unaccompanied minors who enter the U.S. illegally from countries other than Mexico and Canada from being swiftly deported before they can make a case that they deserve to stay. Many Democrats have said the law should be left as-is, and although President Barack Obama has voiced support for changes, he didn't propose doing so when he requested $3.7 billion to deal with the influx of more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border illegally since October.
After meeting with members Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters that they would not give the president a "blank check" on the border crisis without conditions.
"Without trying to fix the problem, I don't know how we actually are in a position to give the president any more money," he said.
The proposal will set the House up for a conflict with Senate Democrats, who are planning their own funding bill at $2.7 billion -- less than Obama requested, but more than the House GOP has indicated it is willing to spend. The Senate Democrats' bill will not include changes to the 2008 law.
A working group of House Republican members, led by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), briefed GOP members in a meeting on its recommendations, which are mostly focused on enforcement and deterrence.
The group recommended measures that would speed up deportations, including by changing the 2008 law so unaccompanied minors could be deported without a court hearing. If a minor does receive a hearing, it would take place within a week of a screening by child welfare officials, according to the recommendations. Families apprehended at the border would be detained with the goal of handling their removal cases within a week, and standards for asylum would be tightened. The group recommended increasing penalties for human smuggling.
The working group also called for a strategy from the Department of Homeland Security to gain operational control of the border, and for sending National Guard troops to the border. In Central America, the group recommended mounting a messaging campaign to discourage more would-be immigrants from coming, and helping Mexico to ramp up its border security.
"There's no doubt it is a crisis issue, and we have to act as quickly as we can getting the children back to their home countries," Granger told reporters when asked to characterize the response to her proposal.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the $1.5 billion would come from unobligated money left over from previous appropriations. He added that it was not yet clear if Granger's proposed changes to the 2008 law would be tied to the supplemental funding, but pointed out that a "clean" funding bill that made no policy changes would not pass the House.
"If we do not change the '08 law and have to accommodate the continuing flood of people coming across the border, the HHS [Health and Human Services] portion of the expenditure is going to skyrocket," Rogers said. "I estimate at least 1.3 billion in additional expenditures, unless we change that law to allow us to humanely treat the people coming across and send them back to their homes."
Rogers said it was "probable" that the House will act before the August recess and that most of his colleagues appeared to be on the same page.
"I think it looks like at this point there's good support," he said. "No one's done a whip check yet, so we don't know for sure ... [but] they didn't really push back."
Boehner said he was "hopeful" the House would act before the recess, but did not give a firm commitment.
"I'd like to act," he told reporters. "We have a humanitarian crisis on the border that has to be dealt with. The president clearly isn't going to deal with it on his own, even though he has the authority to deal with it on his own."
The plan is likely to get pushback from within parts of the GOP. Some members oppose giving any funding for the border crisis except to rapidly deport the unaccompanied minors. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) proposed putting the children and teenagers onto commercial flights for about $300 each. He said that plan would work out to between $20 million and $30 million dollars.
"There's no way in the world I'll support spending $1 billion to $1.5 billion when we can solve the problem for as little as $20 to $30 million," Brooks told reporters.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said some conservatives feared that the Senate would just amend any House-passed bill to resemble what Obama and Democrats want. Republicans in the lower chamber would then be forced to pass a measure they don't support, as they have in previous moments of crisis.
"I'm not optimistic that the Senate or the president is willing to do anything constructive here," he said. "And that's the reason why I'm concerned that if we send something over there that may be a good bill, what we get back in return may look terrible and we may get jammed."
But most rank-and-file Republicans agreed that if the Senate tried to push a final bill that made no changes to the 2008 law, Congress was headed for a showdown.
"I think that's going to be one of the sticking points between the House and the Senate and the White House," said Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). "I'm hopeful that they'll eventually see the light on that … I think for House Republicans that's going to be critical, because if you don't do that you're not going to stop the flow."