Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, thought he had a sure-fire winning bill to secure the border at the start of the congressional session.
It isn’t turning out that way.
McCaul got the bill, which he said was the toughest crackdown on illegal immigration border crossings ever, through his committee at lightning speed. It would set deadlines for federal officials to stop the flow to get “operational control” of the border and add 27 miles of fencing and enhanced technology to aid patrolling.
But instead of bolstering his party’s credibility on immigration, McCaul’s bill, which passed his committee on a party line vote, ran into fierce conservative opposition. It was pulled just before its scheduled vote Wednesday on the House floor.
Officially it was because some members were socked in by bad weather in the Northeast. But the divisions in House ranks made House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, acknowledge Tuesday that “there have been a couple of stumbles,” by the Republican majority.
Earlier, the Republican leaders also had to pull an abortion bill that got pushback from some of the women lawmakers in the party.
Where does that leave the border security bill? McCaul is upbeat.
"I just returned from leading a delegation of 25 members to the Southwest border,” said McCaul. (Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, was on the trip.) “They understand that the insecurity of our borders is a national security issue. Congress must act. I remain laser-focused on getting this border security bill to the floor and passed."
But there are several issues at play.
Conservatives, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said they don’t want a bill that takes partial steps to combat illegal immigration and they don’t think the bill is as tough as McCaul claims.
“Republicans won a historic midterm vote on the promise to take real action –not symbolic gestures – to end the immigration lawlessness,” said Sessions leading up to the scheduled House vote. “It is essential that any immigration measures moved by the Republican Congress actually do the job.”
McCaul frantically tried to convince Sessions, new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, who has influence over many House conservatives, that his bill was viable. The Texan even went over to the Senate side of the Capitol complex to talk to Sessions.
Republican Rep. Pete Sessions (no relation) of Texas, who chairs the House Rules Committee, accompanied McCaul and told McClatchy that he explained to the senator that House jurisdictional breakdown meant McCaul’s committee oversaw the Border Patrol, but not immigration.
“It is a jurisdictional smorgasbord,” said Rep. Sessions. “It caused a lot of people to jump to the conclusion that Republicans didn’t care about that delicate issue” of immigration.
The result: “We have backed up a little bit,” said Rep. Sessions.
The border security bill will now be put on the back burner while the House Judiciary Committee works on a bill that will clamp down on immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
In a joint statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., and McCaul said, “We . . . join our colleagues to secure our borders and ensure our immigration laws are not unilaterally ignored by President Obama and future presidents. We will continue working on these issues and the Judiciary Committee will work on legislation to deliver results on interior enforcement, such as mandatory electronic verification of employment eligibility, addressing fraud in the asylum system, and allowing state and local law enforcement to help in enforcing our laws.”
The Judiciary Committee has set a hearing Tuesday on immigration laws. The expectation is that two pieces of legislation – one from Judiciary and McCaul’s border security bill – will move closely together sometime in March.
Meanwhile, funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes immigration control, runs out at the end of February unless Congress acts, a tactical move by Republicans last year as a protest to Obama’s executive actions limiting deportations.
While that is a short-term issue, the long-term concern over control of the border and the interior looms large.
For McCaul, it was a fast-track misstep from which he hopes to recover.