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Time Running Short For Congress To Agree On Border Bill

Congress is set to disband later this week for a summer break stretching past Labor Day. That leaves lawmakers only a few more days to act on an urgent request from President Obama.

The president wants nearly $4 billion in emergency funds to deal with the tens of thousands of children from Central America who've been illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months. The GOP-led House may act on just a fraction of that request, setting up a clash with the Democratic-led Senate.

House Republicans are in a tricky spot: with mid-term elections coming up, they don't want to be seen as the party that ignores the plight of Latin Americans fleeing to the U.S. But many GOP lawmakers are also loathe to give President Obama what they perceive to be a blank check for resolving the crisis.

House Speaker John Boehner declared Thursday there will be no blank check, but he also made clear doing nothing is not an option.

"I think taking some action to solve this problem is in order," Boehner said. "I think dealing with the humanitarian crisis on the border is also in order, and I've frankly been clear with my colleagues about it."

Boehner gathered his fellow Republicans behind closed doors Friday in the basement of the Capitol to pound home that message. It was enough to sway even Rep. Steve King, the Iowa conservative who'd earlier opposed funding for the border crisis.

"I'm a little more comfortable with the speaker's position on this than I was when I woke up this morning," King said.

And Texas Republican Pete Sessions, another hardliner on border security, declared his aim was to reverse the tide of illegal immigration.

"We're gonna make sure that these children are treated humanely and that we move them back to their home countries, which is where they belong," Sessions said.

Republicans say the only way to do that is by amending a 2008 law that allows young people from nations other than Canada and Mexico, who've entered illegally, to remain in the U.S. while their cases are adjudicated. Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas is a key player in the House response to the president's request. She says any bill it passes must have two things.

"One thing is changing the 2008 law, treating everyone the same," Granger said. "The other thing is to have more judges — significantly more judges — so they can hear these cases more quickly."

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, like most House Democrats, opposes attaching a change in that law to the funding bill.

"You want to have a separate bill on 2008? Discuss it there," Pelosi said. "Don't hold the children hostage to the cosmetics of how tough you are on the border."

Most Senate Democrats also oppose such a change, including New Mexico's Martin Heinrich.

"It's one thing to say you're gonna speed up that process; that's something I can probably support," Heinrich said. "But you can't short-circuit that process; you can't take due process away from those kids."

House Republicans may also approve only about a quarter of the funds the president requested. Senate Democrats are also likely to give Obama less than what he wants.

"Some people argue it is too expensive," said Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat. "Well, we can argue about the exact amount of money, but I hope we aren't arguing about the value and the principle that is being tested. I hope we are not arguing about whether the United States is a caring and compassionate nation."

Senate Democrats are doing their own emergency funding bill; even if it passes, there may be no time left this week to reconcile it with whatever the House produces.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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