A day after a handful of House progressives introduced legislation to erase the federal agency, GOP lawmakers on Friday were considering scheduling a vote on the effort. That would force Democrats to take a stand on a proposal many of them would rather avoid because either way, they risk alienating voters.
The bill has no chance of passage by the Republican-dominated chamber. It was unclear if the vote, if held, would be on the Democratic legislation or a similar measure.
In hopes of blunting GOP efforts to embarrass and divide them, Democrats said Friday they would oppose their own legislation en masse if Republicans forced a vote. One top Republican essentially said that was fine with him.
"How would they go back home and explain how they voted against a bill that they filed?" No. 3 GOP leader Steve Scalise, R-La., told a reporter. "People are tired of them talking out of both sides of their mouths. If they're really for abolishing ICE, they ought to explain why, they ought to be proud of it."
Republicans see the proposal as a chance to cast Democrats as soft on border security. A vote could also give them a political counterweight to the unremitting images of young migrant children torn from their seized parents.
For many liberals and party activists, ICE has become an emblem of President Donald Trump's forceful efforts to divide migrant families and remove immigrants who arrived here illegally.
The idea of erasing the agency has gained resonance among Democrats since political neophyte Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used it while ousting 10-term veteran Rep. Joe Crowley in a party primary last month. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., two potential 2020 president contenders, have also embraced the idea.
Even so, backers of the bill said they and other Democrats would oppose it because Republicans were using it to score political points.
"We will not fall victim to a cheap political trick," said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., a sponsor. He said Democrats would use the debate to train attention on the thousands of children taken from migrant parents under Trump's now discarded policy of separating detained families.
Many Democrats would prefer to not vote on the liberals' bill at all. Voting for it could make Democrats vulnerable to GOP charges that they want to dismantle an important law enforcement agency, but opposing it risks angering liberal constituents.
"Call the administration out for a policy that is failing and just ripping families apart," said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y. "Anytime you propose something that is extreme, which I think this is, you're not talking about the real issues here. There's a lot of stuff ICE does that keeps us safe."
The bill would create a commission to assign ICE's duties to other agencies. ICE would cease to exist within a year.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., would not say Friday whether there will be a vote. Scalise and other leaders referred questions about the decision to McCarthy.
"When I announce my schedule, you guys can see it," McCarthy said.
More than 50 Republicans have also signed onto a symbolic measure by Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., saying abolishing ICE would let "dangerous criminal aliens" enter the U.S., mean open borders and insult "heroic law enforcement officers."
It was unclear where the idea of using abolishing ICE against Democrats came from. Two Republican aides said Scalise raised the idea with colleagues this week, but others said the impetus came from McCarthy. The Republicans spoke on condition of anonymity to describe closed-door conversations.
McCarthy is seen as the favorite to succeed Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is retiring from Congress in January. Scalise is backing him but hasn't ruled out seeking the post if McCarthy falters.
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