Kevin Yoder is one of the key players in the border wall drama that will consume Congress and the White House over the next few weeks— a drama that is also likely to define Yoder’s career.
Yoder, R-Kansas, chairs the House panel that helps set funding levels for the Department of Homeland Security. That means Yoder could end up getting credit as the person who helped President Donald Trump build his long-promised wall along the border with Mexico. Or was instrumental in thwarting Trump’s pet project.
Congress has until Dec. 7 to pass a spending plan to fund much of the federal government. If it fails, several agencies, including DHS, would face a partial shutdown.
Yoder’s last major act as a congressman will be to try to guide to passage the bill that provides billions for the border wall.
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He is one of four principal negotiators on the bill along with Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-California, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana.
The homeland security budget bill is arguably the most significant piece of legislation Yoder has worked on during his eight years in Congress and will have huge stakes for Trump, who faces the prospect of two years of investigations and policy fights once Democrats officially take control of the House in January.
Yoder’s association with Trump helped sink the congressman’s chances in a district he had won by double digits in each of the previous four elections.
The House version of the Homeland Security budget bill provides $5 billion in funding for a border wall, the amount Trump wants. The Senate version steers $1.6 billion toward extra border security. Trump has suggested for weeks that he’s ready to shut down the government if the wall isn’t funded to the level he wants.
“Surely, there is a solution between those two numbers,” Yoder said earlier this month.
How Yoder navigates this process will become an important part of his political resume if he pursues a comeback in 2020 or seeks to land a lobbying job after his term ends. It’ll also have major stakes for Trump’s re-election campaign.
“President Trump needs to get a wall built,” said Kelly Arnold, the chair of the Kansas Republican Party. “And for Kevin Yoder to shepherd that through and be the champion of that is key for Kevin’s legacy.”
Yoder said that lawmakers will have less overall money for homeland security available to them than when the House first crafted its version of the bill with $5 billion for the border wall.
“It would certainly put pressure on the total bill,” Yoder said. “I think both sides need to be flexible to come to a resolution. The whole goal here is to improve border security.”
Brandi Fisher, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, a Kansas-based group which promotes centrist policies, called Yoder’s role in the border wall bill symbolic of his shift to the right over a 16-year political career that began with his election to the Kansas legislature in 2002.
But the House spending bill also includes measures that highlight Yoder’s willingness to work with Democrats on immigration, including a provision to prevent family separations at the southern border. The House bill also includes Yoder’s legislation to remove the per-country cap on green cards.
The measure is intended to help immigrants from India and China on work visas avoid the decades-long wait for green cards under the current system because of the high number of people coming to the United States from those countries. Yoder has repeatedly promised to get the policy changed by the end of the year.
The Senate bill does not include the provision, but a broad range of senators back the legislation.
Despite his electoral defeat, Yoder “has massive leverage” to make that happen because GOP leaders are also lame ducks after Republicans lost control of the House, said Leon Fresco, general counsel and strategist for Immigration Voice, the main advocacy group pushing for the the legislation.
Fresco said that fixing the green card system will affect roughly 1 million people, many of them high tech workers, who currently cannot change jobs, launch new companies or develop patents because their visas are tied to their current position.
Enabling these high-skilled immigrants to obtain green cards sooner by removing the per country cap “will have a much greater effect on our economy over the next five years than the difference between $2 or $5 billion for the border wall,” Fresco said.
“Those individuals will have made such dramatic change to this country and will be able to say it was because of Kevin Yoder that they did this,” Fresco said. “They will be able to say, ‘Kevin Yoder is the reason my company exists’ and that’s a big, big deal.”
Yoder began championing the bill last year after the hate crime murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian-born engineer who lived in Yoder’s district, threatened the legal immigration status of Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala.
Yoder intervened to help Dumala obtain a new visa after her husband’s death and wants to pass the green card legislation to provide her with a path to citizenship.
“It’s a lot that goes into this. You have more freedom to travel or even to do something simple like getting your driver’s license renewed,” Dumala said.
While the legislation has wide support, it faces opposition from hardline conservative groups, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, who are pushing to have it removed from the budget bill.
“The long-term beneficiaries are really the employers who have adopted this long-term business model of replacing American workers with guest workers from abroad,” said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the center, which favors reducing immigration rates.
She said Republicans need to provide Trump with money for a border wall and more money for the enforcement of the current immigration laws instead of coupling the budget measures with other policies.
“On the one hand, Yoder and even (House Speaker) Paul Ryan have very little clout,” Vaughn said. “But they’re also lame ducks so they can do what they want without fear of any repercussions from their constituents.”