Senate GOP pushes for bill to end Trump's family separation policy, but Schumer says 'the president alone can fix it'

Key Points
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says all Republicans want to stop the separation of migrant families, and Majority Whip John Cornyn adds the Senate hopes to have a solution this week.
  • Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the Trump administration practice and urged the White House to end it.
  • A legislative solution in Congress may be elusive, as the major parties have long failed to reach a consensus on immigration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Getty Images

Congressional efforts to end the Trump administration policy of splitting up migrant families gained steam Tuesday as bipartisan outrage about the practice mounted.

But Democrats quickly indicated they may not cooperate with a GOP push for a legislative solution, and put the burden on President Donald Trump to change his policy himself.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that he and "all of the members of the Republican conference support a plan" to keep families together and end the White House practice. The GOP aims to move quickly on a legislative fix, but needs support from at least nine Democrats to get the 60 votes needed to pass one.

"My hope is this is not going to be something we're going to do over a matter of weeks and months but something we can do over a matter of days, hopefully this week," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, added.

McConnell said, a bill "would need to be a narrow agreement to fix the problem we all agree needs to be fixed." It means the Senate may not pursue a broader overhaul of the immigration system and border security, as Trump appears to seek.

Numerous Republicans and Democrats in Congress have now called on the White House to immediately halt the policy, which critics have called inhumane and un-American. It is unclear whether a Trump administration that has vehemently defended the policy or a deeply divided Congress can take action to end the widely condemned practice.

But Democrats put the onus on the president to take action himself Tuesday. An animated Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, "The president alone can fix it with a flick of a pen by signing a presidential order to end the agonizing screams of small children who have been separated from their parents." He shrugged off concerns about the GOP potentially attacking Democrats for not supporting legislation to stop the policy.

"Let's hope we never get to that. Let's hope the president does the right thing and solves the problem, which he can do. That's the simplest, easiest and most likely way this can happen," he said, noting that Congress has tried and failed repeatedly to pass immigration bills.

Many Republicans — who control both chambers of Congress — have said the White House can and should stop the policy on its own.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Senate Republican and a Trump ally, gathered signatures from 11 other GOP senators on a letter asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the family separations while Congress figures out a faster way to deal with illegal immigrants.

"We support the administration's efforts to enforce our immigration laws, but we cannot support the implementation of a policy that results in the categorical forced separation of minor children from their parents," Hatch said in the letter, which was also sent to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Tuesday.

The Republicans signees include Sens. John McCain, Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Bob Corker — all of whom have been willing to challenge Trump either in word or deed at various points in his presidency.

The congressional proposal could mark a compromise of sorts with the White House, as the Trump administration has falsely argued that only Congress can end the policy.

Trump: The US will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility
Trump: The US will not be a migrant camp

Even if Sessions agrees to stop the separation of children from families, Congress could have trouble passing a legislative solution. Immigration has long confounded lawmakers. Fault lines have already emerged around bills proposed by various members of Congress to end family separation.

Even a narrow bill to address only the administration splitting up families could prove difficult to pass.

Under its "zero tolerance" policy, the Trump administration criminally prosecutes every adult crossing U.S. borders illegally. That results in increased separations of children from parents as cases are heard. Uproar over the policy has mounted after images showed children weeping after being split from their parents and sleeping on floors within metal cage-like structures.

All 49 Senate Democrats and independents who caucus with them have signed on to a bill proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to stop the practice. But no Republicans have supported the measure. Even some senators who have condemned splitting up families have criticized the bill. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has called it "too broad."

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., went further by calling it a "get-radical, extreme open-borders bill" on Tuesday. He is considered one of the more conservative Senate Republicans.

Cotton tweet

Other lawmakers have put forward legislative solutions. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced a bill Monday to stop splitting up families. It would increase the number of federal immigration judges, create more temporary shelters for families and make asylum cases for migrants heard more quickly. Many Democrats may not support the legislation.

"While these cases are pending, families should stay together. Children belong with their mothers and fathers," said the senator, a hawk on illegal immigration who faces a well-funded re-election challenge from Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke this year.

House Republicans also aim to address the separation policy in legislation this week. The House plans to consider two GOP-written immigration bills.

One is supposed to capture a compromise between centrists and conservatives. It would largely meet Trump's border security demands while offering a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The other measure the House will consider is more conservative and does not include a pathway to citizenship.

Both bills would try to stop the practice of splitting up families. However, some Republicans have expressed skepticism that the language in those measures would actually stop family separation.

"You don't need legislation. The administration can do this and stop this policy right now. But there's nothing that I've seen in this upcoming legislation that would stop this problem," said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, on Monday.

While a variety of bipartisan lawmakers have called for an end to the White House policy, members of Congress have taken vastly different views on how best to address it.

For instance, at least 10 Democrats have gone as far as urging Nielsen to resign over her role in the practice. Republicans are unlikely to join them.