Senate appropriators sparred over immigration Wednesday as Republicans pushed for border policy changes they want to include in an emergency spending package for Israel, Ukraine and more that could ride on a stopgap measure due by next Friday to avoid a partial government shutdown.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the star witness at an Appropriations Committee hearing, pledged to work with senators on border policy changes. But he said the border problem should be addressed “not in piecemeal form, but in a comprehensive form.”
Some Republicans bristled at that suggestion, saying a push for a comprehensive solution could be a substitute for inaction.
“We keep waiting for comprehensive reform and as a result we do next to nothing,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. “And I hope that you and the administration would use this opportunity to seriously work with those of us who are willing to make changes. … Otherwise, my entire time in Congress will be waiting for comprehensive reform.”
Several GOP senators, led by Senate Judiciary ranking member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, offered a border plan this week that Republicans have described as a precondition for approving additional aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Their plan would resume construction of a southern border wall, toughen asylum laws, restrict the use of certain temporary resident and work permits and seek to close a “family loophole” that allows adults who bring children with them to obtain a faster release from custody, among other things.
But Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., dismissed what she called “a huge, far-right wish list on immigration” that stands no chance of passing the Senate.
“We need to focus on the ideas that can actually get widespread bipartisan support that address the root causes of migration,” Murray said. “That is almost entirely absent from this proposal…We need to focus on serious proposals.”
Democrats used the hearing in part to attack the GOP border plan. Under questioning from Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Mayorkas said resuming border wall construction would be ineffective.
“It is not the time for brick and mortar,” Mayorkas said. “We need to meet the moment with technological innovation and our extraordinary personnel.”
Republicans pressed Mayorkas for specific policy changes that he thought would make a substantive improvement at the border, but the secretary resisted.
“When we’re speaking of a system that has not been reformed since 1996, we need to reform it from top to bottom,” he told Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., a former chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
Capito also questioned some of the funding requests included in President Joe Biden’s $13.6 billion supplemental border package — part of the broader $105.9 billion emergency funding request —such as the hiring of what Mayorkas said would be 1,300 additional border patrol agents.
“How in the world are you going to hire an additional 1,000 officers when you can’t even hire up to the allotted amount that you’re appropriated for today?” Capito said.
Mayorkas said the department would be “intensely focused on hiring reform,” including changes to a polygraph system that he suggested had stymied hiring in the past.
While Republicans attacked Mayorkas for policies they said have caused chaos at the border, Mayorkas said the problem isn’t specific policies but “a broken immigration system” that Congress has failed to address for decades.
And each time Mayorkas called for an overhaul, Republicans pushed back.
“We need to make some incremental gains here,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “I hope you take seriously that we will not be able to get the support that we need for Israel, for Ukraine, for the Indo-Pacific, for the disasters, unless there is true, meaningful border security as part of this supplemental” bill.
Child care, disaster aid
While border policy dominated the debate, appropriators also discussed parts of Biden’s separate request for nearly $56 billion in domestic spending, including for child care and disaster relief.
Murray again pushed for $16 billion included in Biden’s request for child care, pointing to the expiration last month of “stabilization funding” paid to child care providers under a 2021 pandemic relief law.
“That funding has now expired and our child care system is once again hanging on by a thread,” Murray said. “If we don’t act soon, the child care crisis is going to keep getting worse and it will hurt our economy in the process.”
But Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., questioned why additional child care funding wasn’t included in the fiscal 2024 budget request.
“The latest supplemental request really stretches the definition of what an emergency is,” she said. While the pandemic relief law provided an additional cash infusion, she said, “COVID emergency funding was never intended to be indefinite.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, the other witness at Wednesday’s hearing, defended the decision to seek emergency funding for child care centers.
“If they go under, it is an emergency,” he said. “It will be a crisis.”
The domestic supplemental request also includes a $9 billion cash infusion for the disaster relief fund run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an arm of the Homeland Security Department. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., asked Mayorkas how long relief efforts could last if the $9 billion isn’t provided.
Without that money, Mayorkas said, as soon as the middle of next year “we would have to begin to compromise the distribution of funds to only life-saving activities as opposed to community rebuilding and restoration and other critical elements of our work.”
Senate Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, has said any domestic emergency funding package should move separately from the security-related supplemental, which members on both sides of the aisle in the Senate want to tack onto the continuing resolution.