The Trump administration’s family-separation policy has split the Senate Democratic caucus over how to respond.
Inside the party, a faction has argued that lawmakers simply cannot negotiate with President Donald Trump whom, they believe, initiated the crisis and could bring an end to it on his own. But as lawmakers gathered on Tuesday, it also became apparent that some members were willing to accept modest policy demands if it meant preventing the administration from continuing to separate children from their parents who cross the southern border illegally.
“He is essentially taking human hostages,” said one top Senate Democratic aide. “But you have to be pretty heartless to hear these children crying on television and not want to do anything about it.”
The disagreement is on matters of tactics, not policy, as every member of the Senate Democratic caucus has already signed on to a bill that would require that families be kept together as they move through court proceedings. But that divergence could prove highly consequential as pressure mounts for Congress to react to the humanitarian crisis.
Even as opposition to the family-separation policy remains nearly unanimous on Capitol Hill, the lack of consensus on legislation and tactics means that a resolution is unlikely to come quickly, if it comes at all.
“If Congress is to act, we should act surgically and get it done. If you start looking at all the other factors, it’s going to take a long time,” warned Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD). “Every day, there are children being taken from their parents. And that’s not what this country should be doing.”
Top Democratic aides said on Tuesday that the caucus had two major concerns about the possibility of entering into negotiations to put an end to the crisis. The first was that it would invite Trump to manufacture crises in the future, cognizant that it could bring Democrats to the negotiating table.
“We are not going to be party to the administration or Republicans leveraging these kids to enacting their right wing agenda,” said one senior Senate aide.
The second concern was less profound but similarly important. Democrats said they had no confidence that any deal they struck with Republicans would actually be accepted by the president.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Republicans were vowing to coalesce around legislation that would reverse the family-separation policy, but with legislative additions that Democrats have bristled at in the past. One such proposal, introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), would double the number of immigration judges in order to expedite court proceedings for migrants seeking asylum. It would also undo the family-separation policy.
In a sign of the tactical divides within the Democratic caucus, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who authored the Democrats’ legislation, said that she was willing to support some provisions of the Cruz bill if it meant ending the family-separation policy.
“I’d put immigration judges if that would bring Republicans on. I’m happy to put immigration judges on the bill,” Feinstein told The Daily Beast, adding that she would tell Cruz momentarily on the Senate floor.
Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), a moderate who won a tight special election contest in Alabama, echoed Feinstein, telling The Daily Beast that “something needs to be done in addition to saying just ‘stop the policy.’”
Though Feinstein expressed openness to work with Cruz on his bill, it is unclear if that would help lawmakers break the legislative logjam. For starters, Cruz has only introduced a set of principles, and not legislative text itself. More dire for the prospects of the effort, however, were comments made earlier on Tuesday by Trump, who told a gathering of small business leaders that he did not want more immigration judges to handle asylum cases.
Trump’s routine undercutting of legislative efforts on Capitol Hill had led many Democrats to indicate that they would not negotiate with Republicans at all, lest they make concessions that the president would then reject out of hand.
“If we can get a fix that can get through the Congress, with unanimous support, I don’t know if the president would sign it or veto it,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who visited the border last weekend along with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR). “But I think as we try to build consensus to do that quickly, it’s important to keep the pressure up.”
The situation was further complicated by the fact that anything that lawmakers agree to in the Senate would have to be reconciled with what comes out of the House. And on that side of the Capitol, lawmakers are planning to vote on two GOP-authored bills this week that would codify legal protections for young undocumented immigrants and provide additional funding for border security. House Republicans say those bills include a reversal of the family-separation policy, but it’s unclear if either proposal will pass. It’s also unclear whether the House would consider a package similar to one the Senate is putting together.
Several Republican senators, for their part, also have exhibited internal divisions over tactics and legislative approach. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) sent a letter along with 12 of his colleagues on Tuesday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking that he suspend the policy while Congress works on a fix. Others including Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), meanwhile, both called on the administration to reverse the so-called “zero tolerance” policy that was implemented in April. But with the White House holding firm on its erroneous argument that Congress is the only entity that could solve the humanitarian crisis, those lawmakers and others said they were prepared to back legislation that would address the family-separation policy and could get the requisite 60 votes.
“Somewhere between Feinstein and some of these other ideas that are out there, there’s probably a consensus solution, and I hope we can find it,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of Senate Republican leadership, told The Daily Beast. “Obviously this is an issue that’s not going away.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said all GOP senators back a legislative fix that would keep families together at the border, but added that he preferred a “narrow” and “targeted” fix rather than a broader overhaul. Already, some of his allies were doubting whether that could work.
“You’ll never do anything narrow,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “That’s what I keep telling the president. Fixing one thing opens up 10 other things. And I don’t know how you fix it narrowly.”