California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is leading the effort to find a bipartisan solution to the family separation crisis at the border that has fractured Congress and gripped the nation.
Feinstein and fellow Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois plan to meet Monday with Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina to seek a compromise between their competing bills.
Feinstein introduced legislation — the Keep Families Together Act — two weeks ago to bar federal agents from separating children from parents arrested crossing the border, part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy for those caught trying to enter the country illegally.
That policy led to more than 2,300 children being separated from parents before the president reversed course with an executive order Wednesday. The order, however, is likely to run up against legal challenges, and even the president has acknowledged Congress will have to pass a long-term fix.
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All 49 Democrats in the Senate support Feinstein's bill, but Republicans have offered their own proposals. More than 30 Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are backing legislation known as the Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act. Tillis and Cruz are two of the lead sponsors.
While both bills would stop children from being separated from their families, Democrats and Republicans disagree about what to do with the families after they're apprehended.
Democrats want to release the parents and children together and monitor them to ensure they appear for immigration court hearings. That was the general practice under Trump's predecessors, but the president and Republicans have railed against that arrangement, dubbing it "catch-and-release."
Republicans want to change the law to enable the Department of Homeland Security to detain families with children indefinitely. The Senate Republicans' bill would add 225 new immigration judges and prioritize cases involving children and families.
That would supersede a 1997 legal settlement, reinforced by a 2015 court ruling, that allow children to be held in detention for no more than 20 days.
Speaking at an emotional Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday morning, Feinstein suggested "that some of us sit down together on both bills and take a look and see what we can come up with that can be bipartisan,"
"We’re both available and eager to do so," replied Cruz.
The Texas Republican added that, "There is agreement, I believe, between both Republicans and Democrats that children belong with their parents. We should codify that agreement, we should put it into law."
Feinstein and Cruz are up for re-election this year in states where immigration is a focal point. While each is favored to win another term, Feinstein faces competition from her left in a two-Democrat general election in California.
Cruz faces a tougher-than-expected challenge in bright-red Texas from Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas. Cruz initially backed Trump's policy, but quickly moved to introduce legislation to stop the separations.
Despite earnest calls for bipartisanship on Thursday, the differences between the Democratic and Republican proposals may be too much to overcome.
Cruz complained Thursday that Feinstein's legislation would "mandate effectively releasing everyone who is apprehended."
And he warned that "If that remains the position of congressional Democrats, if the only outcome that is acceptable is releasing all of the illegal immigrants who are detained, that's not going to ... earn bipartisan support."
Feinstein, meanwhile, said neither of the Republican bills to address family separation, drafted by Cruz and Tillis, "is going to work for our side." Cruz previously introduced the Protect Kids and Parents Act before signing onto the other Republican measure.
"It would not be legal to separate children from families. That’s the major finding and conclusion of the bill," Feinstein said of her legislation. "How much more we want to add to that is, I think, a matter of inter-party discussion."
Tillis said he is willing to work with Democrats to address their concerns about long-term detentions.
"The concern from Democrats is, 'Well, you’re going to keep them in detention forever.' Well, why don’t we sit down and figure out how do we address those concerns? I’m open to it," Tillis said.
The discussions offer the best hope yet to find a permanent end to the crisis. The House is set to vote on a comprehensive immigration bill Friday that would detain families together, but it appears unlikely to pass. Even if it does, it would face long odds in the Senate.
Lindsay Wise contributed to this story.