The Slatest

Senate Republicans Want a Bill to End Family Separation. Democrats Say Trump Should Do It.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

After spending their weekly luncheon discussing the family separation crisis on the border, Senate Republicans on Tuesday said they are determined to draft a narrow, bipartisan piece of legislation to address the issue. Senate Democrats, however, view such negotiations as a trap, and said the problem remains President Trump’s to fix.

At their weekly press conference, Republicans expressed their interest in passing legislation not over “weeks and months,” as Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said, but “over a matter of days, hopefully this week.” That could be through unanimous consent, if we lived in an alternate dimension where all Democrats and Republicans quickly agreed on a solution to a particularly tense immigration issue, or as a rider to the appropriations bill that’s under floor consideration.

Republican leaders want to keep the legislation simple, and broke with the White House’s stance that a family separation fix needs to be tied to a broader immigration package (i.e., that ending family separation be used as leverage to secure other conservative immigration demands).

“The only way to guarantee, on an issue this complicated, that we get a fix is for it to be a narrow solution targeted at this particular problem,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “My assumption is: in order to fix this problem, you can’t fix all the problems.”

But the assumption from Senate Democratic leaders, as they made clear shortly thereafter, is: in order to fix this problem, then… the Trump administration should immediately cease its policy of separating families.

“At the Republican National Convention, President Trump said about the problems of the nation, ‘I alone can fix it,’” Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters. “In the case of family separation, it’s actually true. Mr. President, you alone can fix it.” Schumer offered to lend Trump a pen to sign such an order.

Schumer rejected McConnell’s calls for bipartisan legislation, citing the number of “obstacles” in the way of a legislative fix, and the useless process the Senate cycled through after Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year.

“When the president can do it with his own pen, [legislation] makes no sense,” he said, ticking off the conditions legislation would have to meet. “[House Speaker Paul] Ryan. The president signing it. Attaching it to things that are unacceptable. Legislation is not the way to go here when it’s so easy for the president to sign it. It’s an excuse.”

When a reporter asked if they would be willing to act if this separation crisis lingered for months longer, Schumer said, “let’s hope we never get to that.”

“How many times has immigration legislation passed in this Congress? How many times? Zero,” he said. “It’s an excuse by our Republican colleagues who feel the heat, don’t want to attack the president, even though they know legislation will take a very long time and is unlikely to happen.”

Schumer would probably believe a legislative fix was in order if Trump and the Republicans came out in favor of a bill, authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, that all Senate Democrats support, to end family separation. That bill, which hawkish Republican Sen. Tom Cotton described Tuesday as “codifying” the “catch-and-release” practice they’re seeking to end, is mostly a decoy for Democrats to rally around. What’s new for Senate Democratic leaders is this stance that they’re unwilling to negotiate on a real, bipartisan bill with a chance of moving.

That position carries an obvious risk, so it’s surprising to see the typically risk-averse Senate Democratic conference staking it out. Republicans can try to deflect blame onto Democrats for not doing anything to solve the problem.

But Democrats’ posture does make practical, moral, and messaging sense—if they can stick to it. Practically, Schumer has a point: Are we really to believe that the House, Senate, and Trump can agree to a narrow fix on the hottest issue of the day, when previous efforts at narrow bipartisan fixes—either on DACA or on an Obamacare stabilization package—have dragged for months during this Congress before collapsing spectacularly? Morally, it’s pretty obvious: Don’t negotiate with the people who chose to pursue a policy of separating kids from their parents and encaging them. In terms of messaging, a long-drawn out negotiation process that likely ends in failure allows the blame to shift across Pennsylvania Avenue: That the clowns in Congress are to blame for separating families instead of President Trump, who started it.

Schumer’s decision, for now, appears to reflect recent polling showing that family separation has Republicans cornered. For now, they’re not willing to entertain concessions—only retreat.