A nonbinding immigration bill becomes campaign battlefield

July 18, 2018 - 3:17 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans and Democrats competed to make immigration an election-year issue on their own terms as the GOP pushed symbolic legislation through the House Wednesday extolling a federal law enforcement agency that some liberals have proposed abolishing.

The resolution, a simple statement of praise for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that changes no laws, is a Republican effort to take advantage of an earlier Democratic bill that would erase the agency.

That bill was backed by nine progressive House Democrats but shunned by others worried it risks estranging moderate voters. Abolishing ICE has become a rallying cry for the party's liberal wing, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and upstart House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stunned a 10-term congressman in a New York Democratic primary. Republicans were determined to use that push to cast Democrats as extreme.

"Any other vote than a yes vote is for open borders," the No. 3 House GOP leader, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, said of his party's resolution praising the immigration agency. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the effort to eliminate ICE was being pushed by "the new socialist Democratic party."

Democrats used Wednesday's debate to portray Republicans as trying to distract voters from President Donald Trump, his now-dropped policy of separating migrant children from their parents and his statements challenging the finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the GOP resolution was "a meaningless political stunt to change the subject from the international and domestic shame unleashed on us by President Trump."

The GOP resolution acclaiming ICE was approved 244-35, with 133 Democrats voting "present" to protest the measure.

The vote came the same day House Republicans released a spending bill that would provide $5 billion next year for building Trump's proposed border wall with Mexico. That would represent a major boost and suggests a raucous pre-election budget battle may lie ahead.

Democrats have long opposed financing Trump's wall but lack the votes by themselves to block House approval of that amount. But they have the strength to derail legislation in the closely divided Senate. Without naming a figure, Trump said in April that he would "have no choice" but to force a government shutdown this fall if he doesn't get the border security money he wants.

The $5 billion is well above the $1.6 billion in the Senate version of the bill, which would finance the Homeland Security Department. The higher amount matches what Trump has privately sought in conversations with Republican lawmakers, according to a GOP congressional aide who wasn't authorized to publicly talk about private discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Keeping Americans safe by protecting our homeland is a top priority," Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., who heads the House Appropriations Committee's homeland security subcommittee, said in a written statement.

Two leading Democrats — Reps. Nita Lowey of New York and California's Lucille Roybal-Allard — called the $5 billion a waste that "only further enables this administration's obsession with cruel attacks on immigrants."

The government's new budget year begins Oct. 1, which in effect creates a deadline for the White House and Congress to try reaching budget deals. They almost never do. Without at least a temporary truce, federal agencies would shut down that day. That would create a tremendous political risk for the GOP, which controls government, barely a month before the election.

Trump made the wall a keystone of his successful 2016 election campaign, but insisted that Mexico would pay for it. Mexico has always refused to do so.

All but $126 million of the $5 billion would be for constructing more than 200 miles of wall, with the remainder for technology. Beyond the $5 billion, the bill includes added money for new canine teams, border patrol agents, aircraft and sensors.

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