House Republicans’ unofficial clubhouse in the basement of the Capitol smelled like Chick-fil-A and fear.
As debate raged about the President Donald Trump’s family separation policy Tuesday night, House Speaker Paul Ryan welcomed his colleagues to the wood-paneled room to hear from the President directly. The outgoing Speaker outlined a proposal, which his team sketched out with the White House, that meets each of Trump’s demands for an immigration bill, and would bring to an end the politically toxic practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border.
The President nodded along and moved to the podium. He acknowledged he had discussed the crisis with his daughter, senior adviser Ivanka Trump. “These images are bad for us,” the President said. And he also noted the tough electoral environment facing Republicans, as if anyone in the room were unaware of dire poll numbers.
But instead of providing the clarity nervous Republican lawmakers sought, Trump launched into remarks on unrelated topics, ranging from trade, North Korea and fighter jets to political foes such as Republican Rep. Mark Sanford and journalist Jose Diaz-Balart. “Pass the bill,” Trump concluded. “Do something.” He did not take questions, leaving many Republicans confused which bill the President wanted.
House Republicans, some with their wives and kids with in tow, could only shift in their seats. Once again, Trump could not focus, despite the stakes of a debate that GOP strategists say could hamper the party’s hopes of maintaining the House. And it was unclear to many what Trump wanted the caucus to do.
“It seems the President wants to talk about anything except immigration,” one Republican lawmaker messaged from inside the room.
Congress is considering at least four options to address immigration issues. One is a plan drafted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia that has the support of hardline conservatives and few others. An up-or-down vote on the bill was a demand of many lawmakers, and Ryan has acquiesced to put the matter to bed. But House Republican leaders have all but condemned the measure to a quick death.
Another, with slightly better odds of passage, is a compromise that came from long talks among House conservatives and centrists and the White House. It would offer a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, green-cards for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, $25 billion for the border wall Trump promised, and an end to the current diversity visa lottery system. An amendment added to the proposal would also end to family separations.
The plan still offers a conservative package of ideas, and it might eke its way across the finish line in the House. But it faces either a rewrite or outright rejection in the Senate if it gets that far. And the President’s ambivalence last week on the compromise made its future even more dubious.
A third option is a plan crafted by House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, which would make it more difficult to earn asylum in the U.S. — a provision that would all but consign it to failure because it would win zero Democratic votes.
The fourth (and maybe fifth, if cooperation breaks down) option are plans from Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz to end family separations. But on Tuesday Trump appeared to reject a central piece of Cruz’s proposal: doubling the number of immigration judges to clear the backlog of cases that has slowed adjudication of cases and exacerbated the crisis.
As Republicans flailed for the solution the President has requested, Democrats scoffed at the dysfunction. “Speaker Ryan wants to pass a massive bill that may not even pass the House and couldn’t pass the Senate, the Senate Republicans are supposedly eyeing a bill that the President wouldn’t sign even if it made it to his desk, and the President continues to try to use these separated families as hostages in the legislative process,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the chamber’s top Democrat, said late Tuesday. “Anyone who believes this Republican Congress is capable of addressing this issue is kidding themselves.”
There were signs of a troublesome evening even before Trump’s motorcade arrived. Heading into the closed-door meeting, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said he was likely to vote against the compromise bill. Jordan, who is laying the groundwork to run as the next Republican leader in the House, is often seen as a proxy for at least 30 or so hard-right members of the Freedom Caucus. “I think there are a lot of conservatives who have problems with the bill,” he said.
At the same time, Cruz is telling friends that backing the House compromise measure will be seen as backing “amnesty” and could depress base turnout in November, perhaps complicating its future. That, of course, makes his work in the Senate all the more important in his telling.
Trump’s dramatic arrival at the capital — the motorcade, the march down the storied hallways, the security and entourage, the applause — masked the antipathy brewing within the Republican caucus for a President who commits to one thing, zigzags to another and ultimately does his own thing without regard for his party’s hopes or needs. Even heading into the evening, aides promised to each other that they wouldn’t let the bosses fully drink the Kool-Aid offered by Trump.
“It’s dangerous to take this President at his word,” one senior House aide said. “That’s not a judgment. That’s a statement of fact.”
That sentiment helped explain why so few Republicans were sure how this ends. Despite the urgency of the political problem created by images of children in cages, there is no quick solution apparent. White House aides told lawmakers privately that nothing on paper yet can win the President’s signature — including the House version that White House aides helped to write last week. “Let’s not pretend there’s a solution on the table,” a Senate Republican aide said.
Republicans have started to distance themselves from the President. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a rare defensive tone when he met with reporters on Tuesday. Some Republicans were giving the Democratic alternative, written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a second look. Others started to privately float amendments to Feinstein’s proposal, which on Monday secured support from the last of the 49 Democrats in the Senate.
Where Trump stood remained unclear. “He wants to make sure we’re taking care of those kids who are getting separated,” said Rep. Bryan Mast, a Florida Republican. “He did a great job talking about these bills, and we’re gonna get some more stuff in there.”
“Political courage is not very common around here, but I certainly hope we can overcome that,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a leader of the GOP’s moderate faction. “We know there’s only one bill that can pass, and that’s the compromise bill,” he added.
But that bill’s future isn’t as certain as some optimists think.