GOP Lawmakers Hope Trump’s Border Action Heads Off Political Threat
Posted June 20, 2018 7:59 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Washington moves slowly except in times of crisis — political crisis that is.
Beleaguered Republican members of Congress breathed a momentary sigh of relief Wednesday after President Donald Trump suddenly relented and took steps to stop the separation of immigrant children from their parents after they illegally entered the country along the southern border.
With the midterm elections less than six months away, Republicans trying to hold their majorities in the House and Senate were desperate for quick action that would bring an end to heartbreaking images of crying toddlers who had been taken from stunned parents. They were well aware that the situation was inciting public outrage at a level that threatened to oust some Republican lawmakers from their congressional seats come November.
“America is better than this inhumane, anti-family zero-tolerance policy,” the office of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican in the Senate, declared again in a tweet Wednesday morning, hours before the president announced his retreat.
But Republicans are not out of the woods yet. The president’s grudging executive order, which took a shot at Congress for its “failure to act,” is likely to be only a temporary respite in the standoff over immigration. Congress is still struggling to resolve myriad issues, including the fate of unauthorized immigrants brought into the country as children, as well as Trump’s demand for $25 billion to build a wall along the southwestern border, with the House facing a series of difficult votes Thursday on the immigration question.
At the same time, Democrats are unlikely to let the subject go. They always intended to press immigration as a major topic in many 2018 contests, and the public’s furor at the separation of families only validated that approach.
It was unclear what effect the president’s decision would have on those legislative efforts. Some lawmakers said measures were still needed to make permanent the president’s executive order and to clarify how families should be treated. But others suggested that the order would relieve the pressure on the House and Senate to move ahead.
“It’ll take the heat off Congress doing it, and you’ll still have the uncertainty,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who leads the Judiciary Committee. “It takes care of political problems, but it doesn’t take care of the policy problem,” he said, adding, “and that’s too bad.”
Republican congressional offices had been deluged with calls and emails from incensed constituents and lawmakers facing protests back home. The intense scrutiny energized Democrats and put them on the offensive, drowning out attempts by Republicans to focus on issues more to their liking, such as their tax cuts.
Politics aside, many Republicans said that they were simply appalled by the policy on humanitarian grounds and that it needed to end immediately.
“I’m very glad that the president is going to bring a halt to this atrocious practice,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who, along with Hatch and other Republicans, wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging him to end the policy in the interest of “ordinary human decency.”
The politics were clearly bad for Republicans, particularly those most at risk in November. Trump’s tough talk on immigration might rally his most devoted followers and be a good platform for 2020, but this is 2018.
The Republicans most in danger of losing in November are in swing and suburban districts — many carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and those photographs from the border were not playing well. Republicans were already struggling with female voters, and the separation policy was definitely not going to build support with that core voting group.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., acknowledged that if the issue remained unresolved, it could damage his party heading into the midterm elections. “Certainly if this doesn’t get fixed soon, there could be a cost,” he said, though he noted that he was not worried about his own district.
One vivid illustration of the perceived potency of the matter was that every Senate Democrat — including those seeking re-election in states carried by Trump — signed on to a measure ending the practice introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Those so-called red-state Democrats are often leery of breaking too publicly with the president because of his popularity in their states, but in this case, they did not hold back.
One of them, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who’s in a difficult re-election battle against Gov. Rick Scott, took to the floor Wednesday to assail Trump and his policy.
“It has always been an American value to keep families together even when you are adjudicating the lawful or unlawful status of the parents,” Nelson said.
Several Republicans noted that experience has shown that immigration politics can be tricky and that Democrats could overplay their hand. Democrats prompted a government shutdown in January over an immigration stalemate but quickly relented after deciding it was a miscalculation to press the issue too far. Republicans also said that in the current chaotic political environment, gauging which issues have staying power and which do not is difficult.
While Republicans in Washington were nervous about the fallout of holding the children from their parents, challengers to some of the Democrats running in red states were going on the attack, portraying incumbents such as Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania as proponents of an “open border” policy.
On Twitter, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, tried to broaden that message, accusing Democrats of being the “party of illegal immigration while Rs are party of legal immigration.”
But the president’s quick reversal after multiple definitive declarations that his hands were tied — combined with the palpable Republican relief at the policy change — made it very clear that the party knew it was on the wrong side of the debate. Now the question is whether the president’s action will be enough to quiet the public clamor over the decision to tear children from their families.