Politics & Government

Can Republicans and Democrats act to solve family separations? Four senators will try

Seeking a quick resolution to the family separation crisis at the border that has fractured Congress and gripped the nation, Senate leaders from both parties will meet Monday to seek a compromise between competing bills.

President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy led to more than 2,300 children being separated from parents before he reversed course with an executive order Wednesday. The order, however, is likely to run up against legal challenges and even the president has acknowledged Congress will have to pass a long-term fix.

More than 30 Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are backing legislation known as the Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act.

The entire 49-member Democratic caucus, meanwhile, has signed onto a competing bill, the Keep Families Together Act, championed by California's Dianne Feinstein.

While both bills would stop children from being separated from their families, Democrats and Republicans disagree about what to do with the families after they're apprehended.

Democrats want to release the parents and children and monitor them to ensure they appear for immigration court hearings to address their status. That was the general practice under Trump's predecessors, but the president and Republicans have railed against that arrangement, dubbing it "catch-and-release."

Republicans want to change the law to enable the Department of Homeland Security to detain families with children indefinitely. The Senate Republicans' bill would add 225 new immigration judges and prioritize cases involving children and families.

A court settlement allows families to be held for up to 20 days.

Feinstein will meet with Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina and fellow Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois on Monday. Tillis and Cruz are among eight key sponsors of the Republican bill. All four senators are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would write the legislation.

"What I suggest is that some of us sit down together on both bills and take a look and see what we can come up with that can be bipartisan," Feinstein said during a committee hearing Thursday morning, gesturing to Cruz and Tillis.

"We’re both available and eager to do so," Cruz added. "There is agreement, I believe, between both Republicans and Democrats that children belong with their parents. We should codify that agreement, we should put it into law."

Feinstein and Cruz are up for re-election this year in states where immigration is a huge issue. While each is favored to win another term, Feinstein faces competition from her left in a two-Democrat general election in California.

Cruz faces a tougher-than-expected challenge in bright-red Texas from Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas. Cruz initially backed Trump's policy, but quickly moved to introduce legislation to stop the separations.

The differences may be too much to overcome.

Cruz complained Thursday that Feinstein's legislation would "mandate effectively releasing everyone who is apprehended."

He warned that "If that remains the position of congressional Democrats, if the only outcome that is acceptable is releasing all of the illegal immigrants who are detained, that's not going to ... earn bipartisan support."

Feinstein said neither of the two Republican bills to address family separation, drafted by Cruz and Tillis, "is going to work for our side." Cruz previously introduced the Protect Kids and Parents Act before signing onto the larger Republican measure.

Tillis said he will is willing to work with Democrats to address their concerns about long-term detentions.

"The concern from Democrats is, 'Well, you’re going to keep them in detention forever.' Well, why don’t we sit down and figure out how do we address those concerns? I’m open to it," Tillis said.

"It would not be legal to separate children from families. That’s the major finding and conclusion of the bill," Feinstein said of her legislation. "How much more we want to add to that is, I think, a matter of inter-party discussion."

The discussions offer the best hope yet to find a permanent end to the crisis, since efforts to resolve the crisis in the House have been sluggish. The House is set to vote on a comprehensive immigration bill Friday that would end family separation, but it appears unlikely to pass and, if it did, it faces long odds in the Senate.

Several separate measures have been introduced this week, including one by House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows, R-N.C. Meadows' Equal Protection of Unaccompanied Minors Act would toughen asylum enforcement to cut down on the number of asylum seekers coming to the U.S., in addition to detaining families together.

Lindsay Wise of the McClatchyDC bureau contributed to this story.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC