Washington, DC– The Republican-led United States Senate voted on Wednesday to approve a $4.6bn emergency funding bill for southwest US border.
The 84-8 vote came less than 24 hours after the House of Representative passed a measure that was similar, but had more restrictions on how the Trump administration could use the money. That House bill was rejected in the Senate.
Wide bipartisan support in the Senate for the emergency funds requested by the Trump administration gives the president the upper hand in negotiations with House Democrats who will now face pressure to act quickly.
The Senate action puts House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a political bind between demands from progressives in her caucus to rein-in President Donald Trump‘s family-separation practices at the US border with Mexico, which Pelosi has harshly criticised, and an urgent need to provide US agencies with more funding to handle the recent surge in migrants.
“The topline numbers of the House bill may be similar but the policy implications are vast. Time is of the essence here,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, said in remarks to the Senate on Wednesday.
“We may not agree on how we got here or how best to move forward but we agree there is a crisis, a major crisis, and that the resources are needed now,” Moore Capito said.
The Senate bill would provide $145m to support the US military’s operations at the border, which House Democrats opposed. It would also provide $793m to improve migrant housing conditions at border stations and detention sites and $112m for migrant care.
The Senate bill would allocate $2.88b for the Health and Human Services Department’s much-criticised programme to house unaccompanied migrant children, allowing it to expand its housing capacity.
From October 2018 to May 2019, nearly 51,000 children were referred to HHS, a 60 percent increase over last year, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee summary of the bill
Trump and Pelosi had a phone call on Wednesday to discuss reconciling the House bill with the Senate version, according to a senior Democratic aide speaking on background to reporters. The two spoke for about 15 minutes.
Senators were outraged by a picture of the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande River between the US and Mexico.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, displayed a poster-sized enlargement of the photo during the Senate debate.
“Her head tucked in a shirt. Her arm draped around his neck. They are holding on to each other,” Schumer said.
“These are not drug dealers or vagrants or criminals. They are simply people fleeing a horrible situation in their home country for a better life,” he said.
The Senate bill is a “temporary solution to address the most urgent issues,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee which wrote the Senate bill. “This is not a partisan issue, taking care of children. We should all agree on that.”
Neither the House nor the Senate bill includes funding for more ICE detention beds that Trump has requested.
“The president’s predilection to turn to mass detention is horrible and cruel. It’s also a waste of taxpayer money,” Leahy said.
“Lock up those who really do present a danger. Most five-year-old children don’t,” Leahy said.
The Senate bill has a number of provisions aimed at easing the humanitarian conditions at US detention camps at the border.
The House had approved its bill with a 230-195 vote following outcry over another report of inhumane conditions for children held by the US at border detention centres. Hundreds of children had been held for weeks in filthy conditions at a US Border Patrol detention centre in Clint, Texas, according to immigration rights lawyers who had visited the site.
Most of the abuses uncovered at detention centres have been reported by lawyers visiting migrants under terms of a 1997 court order requiring the US government to maintain standards for detention of migrant children. With few exceptions, members of Congress and the press have been prevented by US officials from entering the detention sites.
For purposes of oversight, both the House and Senate bills include provisions ensuring politicians in future will have access to places where migrant children are held.
The Trump administration had asked Congress for the $4.5bn in emergency funding to address the situation at the border, but the White House said on Monday that the president would veto the House version of the bill.
Many House Democrats have said they would be loath to approve any funding for the Trump administration’s handling of refugees and asylum seekers at the border that does not include restrictions on family separations.
The restrictions on spending in the House bill seeks to prevent the Trump administration from using any of the funds to create an ICE deportation force, or for mass deportations, which the president has threatened.
The House measure provides $200m for a multi-agency processing centre that would work with NGOs to help families and unaccompanied children with an additional $100m for legal services for unaccompanied children, child advocates and post-release services.