U.S. House passes $4.6 billion aid bill backed by Senate, Trump administration

Texas Tribune News

A young boy looks though fencing and razor wire inside a temporary migrant holding area under the Paso del Norte International Port of Entry between Juarez and El Paso set up by Customs and Border Protection , Wednesday, March 27, 2019, in El Paso, TX. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre
A young boy looks though fencing and razor wire inside a temporary migrant holding area under the Paso del Norte International Port of Entry between Juarez and El Paso set up by Customs and Border Protection , Wednesday, March 27, 2019, in El Paso, TX. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

The House passed a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill for the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, after Democratic leaders scrapped efforts to amend the legislation to add more restrictions on the Trump administration.

The vote was 305-to-102 Thursday and the legislation heads to President Trump, who is expected to sign it, since the Senate already passed the bill earlier in the week. The measure will pump billions into the budgets of agencies, including the Health and Human Services Department, that have been overwhelmed by the influx of Central American migrants at the Southern border.

The decision by House Democratic leaders to bring the Senate-passed bill up for a vote came after hours of frantic maneuvering during which Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sought support for a new version of the bill containing protections for unaccompanied minors and restrictions on the administration’s use of funds.

But the White House made clear it opposed Pelosi’s changes, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would not take them up.

“The children come first. At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available,” Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues. “ . . . In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill.”

Fresh problems emerged for the speaker as moderates in the House Democratic caucus began to revolt, threatening to block a key procedural vote unless Pelosi put the Senate bill on the House floor.

These moderates said they wanted to see the House act to address the border crisis, not get locked in a conflict with the Senate, especially with Congress about to leave Washington for a week-long recess.

“To leave is unacceptable and not to take care of these children is unacceptable,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), a member of the moderate Blue Dog group. “And quite frankly, not to work out a compromise with the Senate, in my mind, is unacceptable.”

But the decision by House Democratic leaders to retreat on their push for more accountability from the Trump administration drew fury from some liberals in the House.

“His Senate bill is a militarization bill. McConnell killed the House Bill & dropped this one right before recess to force passage,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on Twitter. “Well, too bad. This is our job. Cancel vacation, fly the Senate in. Pass a clean humanitarian bill & stop trying to squeeze crises for more pain.”

Without action, the agency responsible for caring for unaccompanied children who have flooded the border will run out of money within days, and conditions for minors in U.S. custody would worsen. Other agencies are also overburdened and short of funds, as huge numbers of Central Americans trying to reach U.S. soil have overwhelmed the system. Some migrants have died making the trip, while some children are being held in what observers describe as squalid conditions.

Failing to act “would be awful,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

“Look, they’re going to run out of money at the end of this month. It’s bad now. They’re reducing services down to the bare minimum in some of these places,” Cole said. “So we know that we need to get this done, and I’m very hopeful we will.”

The $4.6 billion Senate bill, which was approved 84-to-8 on Wednesday, includes billions of dollars for the Office of Refugee Resettlement that cares for unaccompanied children, as well as hundreds of millions more for Customs and Border Protection, the Pentagon and other agencies.

But some House Democrats said it gives the administration too much latitude to spend money in ways they oppose, and does not do enough to ensure protections for migrants in U.S. care.

Pelosi had hoped to amend the Senate bill with changes that included a 90-day limit for how long children can spend in holding facilities; less funding for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency; and a provision to ensure lawmakers could visit facilities that hold children without prior notice. The changes were aimed at making the Senate bill palatable to a majority of House Democrats.

But Senate Republicans and the Trump administration announced strong opposition to Pelosi’s new bill Thursday. Pelosi had a nearly hour-long conversation with Vice President Pence around midday as she sought a solution, but Pence was adamant that the House pass the Senate bill, according to congressional officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversation.

In May, more than 144,000 migrants were taken into custody after crossing the border — the largest monthly total in more than a decade. Asylum filings have also skyrocketed, as have arrivals of unaccompanied children.

Speaking on the Senate floor, McConnell said that if the House sent over a new partisan border spending bill, “we will simply move to table it.”

“We’re standing at the 5-yard line, and yet apparently some in the House want to dig back into that ‘Abolish ICE’ playbook and throw a far-left partisan wrench into the whole thing,” McConnell said.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that “the only ones delaying help for the children are the Democrats.”

“We have already negotiated a broadly supported bipartisan funding bill,” Grisham said. “It is time for House Democrats to pass the Senate bill and stop delaying funding to deal with this very real humanitarian crisis.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report