WASHINGTON (AP) – Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee upended the rules Thursday to advance a controversial immigration bill as chairman Lindsey Graham muscled through a detention bill that Democrats oppose.
It’s one last battle, led by a top ally of President Donald Trump, before senators break for a long August recess and the start of 2020 campaigning.
Graham gaveled open the hearing saying he wasn’t going to wait any longer to address the crisis at the southern border. He acknowledged that his outreach to Democrats failed to reach a compromise on detention policies for children and families.
He skirted the rules requiring minority participation in certain actions, including those to allow amendments or end debate.
“What am I supposed to do?” asked the South Carolina Republican. “We have a right to vote.”
Democrats have protested the bill and refused to attend a panel session last week, setting off the battle Thursday. They voted against the measure, decrying what Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse called an “illegitimate process.”
The bill would change existing law that limits family detentions to 20 days for migrants traveling with children, requiring them to be released pending asylum hearings. Among other changes, Graham’s bill would allow longer detentions by doing away with the limits under the so-called Flores settlement, based on a previous legal case.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said the bill is unworkable. “In a word, it’s nuts and probably unconstitutional,” she said.
The morning hearing set off a particularly heated dispute over not just immigration policy, which often divides the political parties, but the traditions of the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority and have chipped away at longstanding rules.
Ground zero for much of the uproar has been the work of the Judiciary Committee, which handled Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court last year.
Senate rules were changed to allow faster confirmation of Trump’s judicial nominees, and confirming Kavanaugh and filling court vacancies with Trump’s picks has been a top accomplishment of the Republican-led Senate.
Graham, who faces his own re-election alongside Trump in 2020, acknowledged his immigration bill may not be approved by the Senate – and faces even less chance in the House, where Democrats have the majority.
He indicated a willingness to continue negotiating with Democrats on a compromise, but said he wasn’t going to leave for the August break without acting.
Lawmakers are eager to return home saying they have taken action to stem the crisis at the border.