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As Senate Leaves For Recess, House Keeps Working On A Border Bill


As Congress heads out on its August recess, House Republicans gather this morning behind closed doors to settle on legislation to deal with the crisis on the border.


They will meet under a new majority leader. California's Kevin McCarthy has officially taken over for Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor. Cantor resigned his leadership post after he was unexpectedly defeated in a primary earlier this year. Now he's leaving Congress altogether. Cantor told the Richmond Times dispatch yesterday he'll step down on August 18, clearing the way for his successor to take office a few months early.

WERTHEIMER: There's still work to do in Congress, though. The Senate failed, yesterday, to pass a bill to fund a more robust response to the border crisis. And even if House Republicans can agree on a bill this morning, it has little chance of becoming law. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At around 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon, chaos erupted in the House of Representatives. The cars were all lined up outside of the capital, ready to whisk members off to the airport for five weeks of recess. Just a couple of votes and they'd be out the door, but then, House leadership pulled their $659 million border funding bill from the floor. If the house had voted, it would've failed. House Republicans agreed they had to do something about the border situation before leaving for recess. They just couldn't agree on what it should be - Alabama Republican Spencer Bachus.

CONGRESSMAN SPENCER BACHUS: There's a lot of cohesion that weren't elected to go home. We were elected to stay here. We've got a crisis on the border.

KEITH: How long might that take?

BACHUS: Be here tonight - we might be here tomorrow. We might be here to the end of the so-called break.

CONGRESSMAN RALPH HALL: Could be here Christmas.

KEITH: Or maybe until Christmas, joked Ralph Hall, the 91-year-old congressman from Texas. Meanwhile, on the other side of the capital, a $2.7 billion border bill from Senate Democrats ran into trouble. Barbara Mikulski is a Maryland Democrat and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI: Could we, in the final minutes of this Congress, get ourselves together enough to meet the urgent supplemental request to do this?

KEITH: The answer was no. Senate Republicans wanted to pass an amendment preventing the president from taking executive action on immigration. Jeff Sessions is an Alabama Republican.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: Congress should not pass border legislation that does not foreclose the possibility of these unlawful executive orders.

KEITH: Democrats wouldn't accept that, and so the Senate bill came up short. And just to be clear, even if the House is able to pass a border measure of its own, it won't much matter. Senate Democrats in the White House said - already said they wouldn't accept some of the provisions House Republicans had been insisting on all week. Blake Farenthold, a Republican congressman from Texas has migrant children housed in his district.

CONGRESSMAN BLAKE FARENTHOLD: This is such an important problem. I mean, you've got children whose lives are in danger making this trip. You've got cramped, crowded conditions, even on our side of the border.

KEITH: And although Congress came up short on addressing the situation along the border, it actually succeeded at dealing with two other big items on its to-do list. Late Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill aimed at ending long wait times for veterans seeking medical care. That measure is headed to the president's desk just days after the Senate confirmed a new secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs. And strong bipartisan votes also passed a bill that will prevent the highway trust fund from running out of cash. West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall outlined the stakes in his speech on the House floor.

CONGRESSMAN NICK RAHALL: Now we stand at the edge of an enormous cliff with days, not weeks, to go before the trust fund goes belly up.

KEITH: So Congress did act, though the bill headed to the president's desk is a temporary fix rather than a permanent solution. It uses what many have described as a budget gimmick to push back that deadline until the spring. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.