How Obama’s Border Plan Stumbled

by Joel Gehrke
He couldn’t get congressional Democrats to agree to any policy changes.

President Obama issued a veto threat Wednesday night against a House bill that included a change to a 2008 human-trafficking law that his administration originally suggested was exacerbating the border crisis.

That awkward development stemmed in part from the Obama team’s inability, so far, to convince congressional Democrats to support any policy changes as part of a supplemental-funding bill to address the border crisis.

Health and Human Services secretary Sylvia Burwell has reached out to moderate Republican senators this week about what it would take to broker a deal.

“I talked with Sylvia Burwell earlier today and I told her that [changing the 2008 law] was going to be something that was absolutely essential to try to get the Senate to do anything on the border issue,” Senator Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) told National Review Online Tuesday. “She was asking me for advice.”

Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine) says she made the same point when Burwell called her. The senators wouldn’t characterize Burwell’s comments in the private conversation. The late-stage outreach suggests that Obama’s team, wanting to secure supplemental funding, is still willing to consider making border-policy changes that might be necessary to bring Republicans on board.

“I think the fact that outreach is apparently occurring and [that there are] discussions among members of both parties indicates that there is interest in trying to come up with a new package that would involve some policy changes, as well as funding,” Collins told NRO when asked about her conversation with Burwell.

The White House has also floated a trial balloon to congressional Democrats on changing the 2008 trafficking law, though not in the same way proposed by Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) and Representative Henry Cuellar (D., Texas).

“We have language that somehow mysteriously appeared from some source near the White House, what somebody over in the White House thought, or within the administration thought, was a principled compromise — not Cornyn-Cuellar, but a principled compromise on this 2008 law,” the well-placed congressional Democrat told NRO on Tuesday. “I first saw it last week.”

Another congressional Democrat said that Obama’s aides were talking to small groups of Democrats, trying to find out whether they would support the White House in negotiating on policy changes.

“I think it’s important and I think it’s worthwhile, because I think the administration doesn’t want to have anything blow up in its face,” Representative John Conyers (D., Mich.) told NRO Friday. “There would be a reaction if some of us were not in on it.”

From these three data points — meetings with small groups of Hill Democrats, the memo outlining a 2008 law change that “mysteriously appeared” last week, and Burwell’s calls to moderate Republican senators — a theory emerges. Obama’s team had a plan: Attach a change to the 2008 human-trafficking law that could get enough Republican votes for the Senate to pass the $2.7 billion supplemental-funding measure Democrats in that chamber proposed.

Had the Senate done so, House Republicans would have been in the unenviable position of either giving Obama far more money than they want to and making a policy change along the lines he wants or blocking the bill and vindicating accusations that they’re obstructionist.

For the plan to work, though, congressional Democrats had to have Obama’s back.

And whatever happened in those meetings, the White House didn’t get enough support to propose a package of policy changes and supplemental funding to the Democratic caucus as a whole.

“In all the meetings I’ve been in today — you know, leadership meetings and whip meetings — I have not heard any indication that [making policy changes] is a possibility,” Florida representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, told NRO Wednesday afternoon. “It doesn’t mean it isn’t, it’s just that it hasn’t been discussed in the meetings I’ve been in today.”

Instead, House Democrats remain opposed to making any changes to the 2008 human-trafficking law. “It’s not just an abstract discussion — you will send a lot of kids back home to be killed if you do that,” Representative Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) told NRO on Wednesday.

“If you look at the history, we’re not proud of the fact that we sent all the Jews back in 1940,” Nadler said, adding that he would rather not pass any supplemental-funding bill rather than pass one that amended the 2008 law.

“You’re now seeing a great reduction [in the number of kids coming] and we can handle it. Even if we don’t pass anything, we can handle it,” Nadler said. “If I had to do one or the other — do nothing or send a lot of kids back to be murdered — I would do nothing, knowing that that’s not a good situation.”

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.