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Washington Digest: Congress struggles with border crisis response

WASHINGTON — Congress struggled last week with a response to the surge of thousands of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. southern border, and then recessed for a five-week August break.

After Republican leaders delayed an initial vote in the face of revolt by conservative members, the House voted 223-189 for a revised bill to spend $694 million for humanitarian assistance, for National Guard border activities, to hire additional immigration judges and to upgrade video conferencing to speed deportations of the migrants.

The bill also would change anti-trafficking law to effectively allow unaccompanied children to be deported more quickly.

The measure, much less than the $3.7 billion President Barack Obama had requested in emergency spending to address the surge, passed along party lines.

“This is a fair bill,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “It solves the crisis at the border and does so in a financially responsible way.”

Democrats denounced the GOP-written bill as draconian and inadequate to solve the problem.

“The Republicans have not offered a legitimate fix to the crisis we confront,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev.

Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, both R-Nev., voted for the bill. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., joined Horsford in voting against it.

As part of an agreement with conservatives, House leaders also allowed a vote on a bill to prevent Obama from expanding an immigration program that grants two-year work permits to so-called DREAMers, young people who were brought into the country illegally as children.

The bill, which passed 216-192, also would prevent the renewal of work permits for more than 580,000 DREAMers granted the exemptions so far.

Heck and Amodei were among 11 Republicans who voted against the bill. Horsford and Titus also voted against it.

The House votes were largely an exercise, as the Democrat-controlled Senate already had gone home for August and had signaled it was going to ignore the GOP measures.

Earlier, senators failed in a 50-44 procedural vote to advance a border bill closer to what Obama had requested. Sixty votes were needed to keep it alive.

Republican senators who banded to block the measure, along with two Democrats, argued it effectively would give the president “a blank check” without making changes in policies that they said are encouraging migrants to try to enter the country.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted for the bill. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against it.

VA BILL SENT TO OBAMA

Congress had more success finalizing a $17 billion bill to pay for an overhaul of Department of Veterans Affairs health care, following scandal over long appointment wait times at many medical centers and revelations that employees were covering up the delays.

The bill that cleared both chambers and was sent to the White House contained funding for the VA to hire more doctors and nurses. It also allows veterans unable to get timely appointments, or who live far away, to seek treatment by non-VA doctors. New VA Secretary Robert McDonald also will have greater authority to fire incompetent senior executives.

The bill passed the House 420-5. Titus, Horsford, Heck and Amodei voted for it.

The Senate vote was 91-3. Reid and Heller voted for it.

HIGHWAY PATCH OK’D

Congress also averted a cutback in federal road funding to states by transferring $10.8 billion into the Highway Trust Fund and authorizing payments through May. The fund was scheduled to drop to an unhealthy level as of Aug. 1, threatening projects across the country.

The Senate voting 81-13 cast the final action on a bill version that passed the House in July. Reid and Heller voted for it.

HOUSE FAVORS OBAMA SUIT

The Republican-led House voted 225-201 mostly along party lines to authorize Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to file a lawsuit against President Obama on the accusation the president oversteps his constitutional powers.

GOP members say Obama’s executive orders in a number of areas are unlawful because it is up to Congress to make laws or change them. The lawsuit reflecting long frustration with the president is expected to focus on changes the president authorized in carrying out the Affordable Care Act.

“It is an appropriate question to put to the third branch of government to see if the founder’s system of checks and balances really expired in 2008,” when Obama was elected, Amodei said.

In a move seen as an attempt to fire up their base for the fall elections, Democrats seized on the vote to argue that Republicans wouldn’t stop at suing Obama.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House minority leader, told GOP lawmakers the lawsuit was “on a path to nowhere, or maybe among some in your ranks, a path to impeachment.”

Heck and Amodei voted to pursue the lawsuit. Horsford and Titus voted against it.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.

 

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