WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers and President Donald Trump searched Tuesday evening for a way to end the administration's policy of separating families after illegal border crossings, with their focus shifting to a new plan to keep children in detention longer than now permitted — but with their parents.
GOP leaders and lawmakers, increasingly fearful of voter reaction in November, met with Trump for about an hour at the Capitol to try to work out some resolution. Trump told rank-and-file Republicans he was "1,000 percent" behind them on their rival immigration bills. But it was unclear if that's enough of a strategy boost to pass legislation through the divided GOP majority.
"We had a great meeting," he called out as he left.
Leaders in both the House and Senate are struggling to shield the party's lawmakers from the public outcry over images of children taken from migrant parents and held in cages at the border. But they are running up against Trump's shifting views on specifics and his determination, according to advisers, not to look soft on immigration or his signature border wall.
Many lawmakers say he could simply reverse the administration's "zero tolerance" policy and keep families together. But some worry the lack of a clear resolution could exacerbate an already tough situation as his party heads toward difficult midterm elections.
During the private session, Trump said his daughter, Ivanka, told him the situation with families at the border looks bad, one lawmaker said.
"He said, 'Politically, this is bad,'" said Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas. "It's not about the politics, this is the right thing to do."
But Trump touched on many topics, including the president's historic visit to North Korea. And he took a jab at Rep. Mark Sanford, congratulating the South Carolina Republican on his recent campaign, according to those granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Sanford, a frequent Trump critic, lost his GOP primary after Trump tweeted against him.
As Trump walked out of the meeting in the Capitol basement, he was confronted by about a half-dozen House Democrats, who yelled, "Stop separating our families!"
House GOP leaders scrambled Tuesday to produce a revised version of a broader immigration bill to include a provision to resolve the situation of family separations.
The major change unveiled Tuesday would loosen rules that now limit the amount of time minors can be held to 20 days, according to a GOP source familiar with the measure. Instead, the children could be detained with their parents for extended periods.
The revision would also give the Department of Homeland Security the authority to use $7 billion in border technology funding to pay for family detention centers, said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and commented only on condition of anonymity.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Republicans are rallying behind a different approach. Theirs is narrow legislation proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would allow detained families to stay together in custody while expediting their deportation proceedings.
Cruz's bill would double the number of federal immigration judges, authorize new temporary shelters to house migrant families and limit the processing of asylum cases to no more than 14 days — a goal immigrant advocates say would be difficult to meet.
"While cases are pending, families should stay together," tweeted Cruz, who is in a re-election battle.
The second-ranking Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said they're proposing a "humane, safe and secure family facility" where parents and minor children could be detained together.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters he's reaching out to Democrats for bipartisan backing, since the proposal would need to reach a 60-vote threshold to advance in that chamber.
But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York signaled that no such support would be coming, saying it's already in Trump's power to keep the families together.
"There's no need for legislation. There's no need for anything else. You can do it. Mr. President, you started it, you can stop it."
However, Trump, who has been watching the coverage play out on television with increasing anger, has told confidants he believes the news media are deliberately highlighting the worst images — like the cages and screaming toddlers — to make him look bad.
To combat worries that he looks "soft" on immigration, Trump wrote a series of tweets in which he played up the dangers posed by the high-profile MS-13 gangs, which make up a small percentage of those who have crossed the border. He used the word "infest" to describe migrants coming to the U.S. illegally.
At an earlier event Tuesday, Trump said he was asking Congress for "the legal authority to detain and promptly remove families together as a unit." He said it was "the only solution to the border crisis."
Trump's meeting at the Capitol came as lawmakers in both parties were up in arms after days of news reports with images of children confined in large wire cages and an audio recording of a young child pleading for his "Papa."
The issue boiled over Tuesday at a House hearing on an unrelated subject, when protesters with babies briefly shut down proceedings.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, pleaded with Republicans on the panel "to stand up to President Donald Trump."
Under the administration's current policy, all unlawful crossings are referred for prosecution — a process that moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Under President Barack Obama's administration, such families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, not requiring separation.
More than 2,300 minors were separated from their families at the border from May 5 through June 9, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Top conservatives, including key Trump allies, have introduced bills to keep the migrant families together. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said his measure "becomes a backup proposal" if others fail.
The House is to vote later this week on two bills that address broader immigration issues to protect young immigrant "Dreamers," who have been living in the U.S. illegally since childhood, from deportation and fund Trump's border wall.
But outlook for passage is dim. One conservative measure is expected to fail. And it's unclear if Trump's backing with help the compromise legislation that GOP leaders negotiated with moderate Republicans. Rep. Steve Scalise of Lousiana, the GOP whip, told reporters he thought it had enough support to pass. Votes are expected Thursday.
The White House, after saying it would accept only a comprehensive fix, reversed course Tuesday and said it was reviewing the Cruz bill.
Read Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.