Are House Republicans Blowing Smoke on the Border?

PHOTO: borderJohn Moore/Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol agent Sal De Leon looks across the Rio Grande River into Mexico at the U.S.-Mexico border while on patrol on April 10, 2013 in McAllen, Texas.

Is it possible to argue for more border security but oppose a massive investment in Border Patrol agents and equipment?

Some Republicans in the House of Representatives think so.

An immigration reform bill that passed in the Senate in late June would bring a "border surge" to the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico. That would mean $46.3 billion in spending that would pay for 20,000 new Border Patrol agents and a bevy of drones, helicopters and sensors.

The deal was sweet enough to win over the 14 Republicans who help propel the bill through the Senate. But it's a bit cloying for some GOP members in the House of Representatives.

That was the view of Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who spoke on CBS News' "Face the Nation" this Sunday:

"What the Senate just passed was... a bunch of, you know, candy thrown down there -- a bunch of assets thrown down there to gain votes -- but without a methodical, smart border approach," said McCaul, who is also the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

McCaul said that he's against "throwing $46 billion at a problem, without any plan, without any strategy."

Yet McCaul isn't happy with the current state of the border. And he supports more border security through his own plan -- but his bill is significantly more general than the one in the Senate.

It's a bit of a contradiction: House Republicans who are appalled by the state of the border are against a plan that would reduce illegal immigration by anywhere between a third and a half, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

There's more to this. The big spending on border security was meant to drown out opposition to a core Democratic provision in the bill: a path to citizenship for some of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

So a vote for the border surge would also be a vote for citizenship. And the majority of House Republicans don't appear to be ready to take that leap.

McCaul hasn't said whether he'd support citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He represents a district that's more than a quarter Hispanic, but he has long been hawkish on immigration policy.

And for now, he's giving House Republicans cover. If his bill comes to the floor -- it's expected to do so in late July or September -- they can vote for more border security without voting on citizenship.

But in the end, a vote for border security alone likely won't be enough for supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. And House members could face mounting pressure to back both legalization and border security. A $100,000 ad campaign just launched on Fox News will call on the House to back the border security strategy proposed in the Senate immigration bill.

If House Republicans dismiss the Senate plan, they'll be on the spot to explain what type of border policy they do support, and why it's better. That won't be an easy task, with the Senate bill projected to cut illegal immigration by as much as 50 percent.

But say those Republicans do get the border legislation they want. Even in that scenario, it still seems like a stretch to believe the majority of the House GOP would then embrace citizenship for the undocumented.

So maybe what we have is less an alternative plan, and more of a smoke screen.