WASHINGTON ― Lawmakers are hopeful they can pass a bill this week that includes hundreds of millions of dollars for badly damaged military posts.
But they still haven’t resolved border wall funding and immigration policy provisions sought by the White House that have snagged progress for months.
Negotiators are apparently wrangling over how to pay for the Trump administration’s decision to expand arrest priorities to include nearly every undocumented immigrant. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reportedly detaining more than 52,000 immigrants in jails around the country, exceeding limits placed by Congress.
“It’s dealing with the border among other things: What do you do with people? Do you detain them, do you have the facilities to detain them, or do you turn them loose and never hear from them again?” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. “That’s part of the overall deal: Do you have the beds to detain them, or do you let them sign their own bond and promise to come back?"
Democrats days ago offered to include billions in humanitarian assistance tied to the U.S.-Mexico border in the aid package, but its unclear how close this comes to the White House position.
“Historically, beds were an attempt by Congress to limit detentions by ICE; you’d only give them so many beds so they can only hold so many people,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. “Expanding beds now because of the humanitarian border crisis, many are arguing on the left, is an excuse to expand the number of detentions, to arrest more people."
As Republicans are reviewing the latest counteroffer on disaster aid from Democrats on Wednesday, Shelby was cagey about Congress passing a bipartisan, bicameral agreement before leaving for the Memorial Day recess. Congress could delay the recess and stay for a vote Friday, if there’s a deal.
“We could, but we can’t vote on anything until they come to agreement, first in principle and then they’ve got to put the language together,” Shelby said, adding that the talks seemed close before but faltered.
In March, Senate Republican appropriators proposed a $13.45 billion aid package that would include more than $2 billion to help the military respond to damage wrought by hurricanes Michael and Florence last fall. That included Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida; Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska; and Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, both in North Carolina.
Through various offers and counteroffers, the amount for those posts stayed fairly constant, according to a Senate aide.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled his impatience and pledged “the Senate will vote on disaster relief this week.” He cited the many communities across the country still in need.
“This legislation has already taken far too long to deliver. But now that we’re in the home stretch, it is past time to put partisan politics aside, move past any tangential questions and secure a final agreement that can become law,” McConnell said. “That is something that can both pass the Democratic House and earn the president’s signature soon. That’s how to make a law in this situation.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.