President Donald Trump on Wednesday hammered California for its so-called sanctuary immigration policies, in what appeared to be his latest push to embolden his base leading into the midterm elections.

As the debate over immigration heats up on Capitol Hill, Trump surrounded himself with mayors, sheriffs and other local leaders from California who oppose the state’s immigration policies and who applauded his administration’s hard-line efforts.

“This is your Republican resistance right here against what they’re doing in California,” said California Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, coopting a term used by Democrats opposed to Trump’s presidency. She, like others, said the president and his policies were far more popular in the state than people realize.

“It’s a crisis,” Melendez said of the situation.

They were responding to legislation signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year that bars police from asking people about their immigration status or helping federal agents with immigration enforcement. Jail officials can transfer inmates to federal immigration authorities if they have been convicted of one of about 800 crimes, mostly felonies, but not for minor offenses.

Brown insists the legislation, which took effect Jan. 1, doesn’t prevent federal immigration officials from doing their jobs. But the Trump administration has sued to reverse it, calling the policies unconstitutional and dangerous. Some counties, including San Diego and Orange, have voted to support the lawsuit or passed their own anti-sanctuary resolutions.

Republicans see backlash to the law as a potentially galvanizing issue during the midterm elections, especially with Trump’s anti-immigrant base. And Trump has held numerous events in recent months during which he’s drawn attention to California’s policies.

During Wednesday’s session, Trump thanked the officials, saying they had “bravely resisted California’s deadly and unconstitutional sanctuary state laws.” He claimed those laws are forcing “the release of illegal immigrant criminals, drug dealers, gang members and violent predators into your communities” and providing “safe harbor to some of the most vicious and violent offenders on earth.”

Trump also claimed opposition to the policies was growing, insisting, “There’s a revolution going on in California.” He referred to some who cross the border illegally as “animals,” not people.

Brown responded on Twitter, writing that Trump “is lying on immigration, lying about crime and lying about the laws of CA.”

The Democratic governor added: “Flying in a dozen Republican politicians to flatter him and praise his reckless policies changes nothing. We, the citizens of the fifth largest economy in the world, are not impressed.”

The event came as top House Republicans worked to head off an attempt by party moderates to force roll calls on four immigration bills. Republican leaders privately warned GOP lawmakers Wednesday that such a drive could damage the party’s prospects in the fall’s congressional elections by dispiriting conservative voters, according to people at the closed-door meeting.

The House leaders fear the winning legislation would be a compromise bill backed solidly by Democrats but opposed by most Republicans, an outcome that could anger conservatives, according to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a leader of the effort to force the immigration votes.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., issued the warning, said a second person who was in the room and spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.

Asked about his remarks, McCarthy said his objection to the procedure was that it would in effect “turn the floor over” to Democrats.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said the petition would be “a big mistake” that would “disunify our majority.” He said the leaders were “working with the administration.”

The moderates said later Wednesday that House leaders were trying to end the immigration standoff and that they could soon see a specific proposal on how to do that.

“We’re willing to see what this looks like,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a leader of the lawmakers trying to force the House to address the issue. Conservatives had their own session with party leaders and also suggested there had been movement, but offered no specifics.

Many of the legislators demanding action face potentially competitive re-election races in congressional districts with large numbers of Hispanic, suburban or agriculture-industry voters with pro-immigration views.

Earlier this year, competing bills aimed at protecting young immigrants and toughening border security — including one backed by Trump — collapsed in the Senate. The measures never received House votes.

The discussion also comes as the Trump administration is under fire for a new policy that is expected to increase the number of children separated from their parents when families cross the border illegally.

Trump, in his remarks, wrongly blamed Democrats for forcing his administration’s hand.

“I know what you’re going through right now with families is very tough,” he told Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, “but those are the bad laws that the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families ... because of the Democrats. It’s terrible.”

But no law “the Democrats gave us” mandates the separation of children from their parents at the border. The administration is using protocols described in a 2008 law designed to combat child trafficking that gave special protections to Central American children at the border. While the bill was authored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, it unanimously passed both houses of Congress and was signed by Republican President George W. Bush as one of his last acts in office.

Nielsen on Tuesday defended the practice, telling a Senate committee that removing children from parents facing criminal charges happens “in the United States every day.”

Trump also told Nielsen that she was “doing a good job,” one week after berating her during a cabinet meeting for failing to halt border crossings.

Feinstein issued a statement accusing the Trump administration of “once again attempting to divide Californians and all Americans with today’s White House meeting.”

“Their decision to convene this meeting is about fueling fear of immigrants and scapegoating entire communities,” she said.

Trump meets with Uzbekistan president to talk Afghanistan: President Donald Trump and the leader of Uzbekistan pledged a close partnership on trade and military ties on Wednesday, as the two leaders conferred on the country’s strategic position near Afghanistan.

Trump welcomed President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the Oval Office for the first time and nodded as the Uzbekistan leader credited the U.S. president for “achieving very outstanding results” in job creation and last year’s tax overhaul. Trump cupped his hands along the side of his mouth, leaned toward his counterpart and said, “I agree 100 percent.”

The Uzbek president, who came to power in 2016 following the death of the country’s longtime autocratic ruler, Islam Karimov, hailed a “new era for strategic partnership” between the two countries.

Uzbekistan shares a short border with Afghanistan and provides a crucial supply route for U.S. forces based in the country. The two leaders were expected to discuss the situation in Afghanistan as the U.S. aims to bring the Taliban to the peace table.

Mirziyoyev has promoted gradual liberal changes in the Central Asian country of about 33 million. He has shed some of the repressive legacies of his predecessor, releasing some political prisoners, lifting restrictions on foreign currency exchange and ordering an end to the practice of compulsory cotton-harvesting work for students and others criticized by human rights groups.

Mirziyoyev has reshuffled the government, removing many old-guard officials, most recently the chief of the nation’s national security agency.

White House officials said in advance of the meeting that Trump would raise human rights conditions but neither leader addressed the subject during brief remarks to reporters.

Russia, China and the U.S. all have vied for influence over Uzbekistan, a resource-rich and strategically placed country that provides the so-called Northern Distribution Network for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Mirziyoyev has sought to maintain friendly ties with Russia while moving to expand ties with the West. His trip to Washington was expected to offer clues about how far he’s ready to go to open up to the U.S.

Trump said the two nations had forged strong ties on trade and the military, pointing to Uzbekistan’s “purchase of equipment and military equipment from the United States.” Mirziyoyev told reporters his country had signed contracts with leading U.S. companies worth $5 billion.

House OKs expansion of private care at VA, budget crisis fix: The House voted Wednesday to give veterans more freedom to see doctors outside the Veterans Affairs health system, a major shift aimed at reducing wait times and improving medical care despite the concerns of some Democrats who cast it as a risky step toward dismantling the struggling agency.

The plan seeks to fulfill President Donald Trump’s promise to expand private care to veterans whenever they feel unhappy with VA health care.

The long-awaited bill would change how veterans receive their medical treatment by allowing them to go to a private physician when they felt government-run VA medical centers couldn’t provide the care they needed, with the approval of a VA health provider. Veterans could access private care when they endured lengthy wait times, or the treatment was not what they had expected.

The VA would decide in many cases when a veteran sees an outside doctor, based on conditions it sets that determine what is inadequate care.

The White House said in a statement that Trump applauded passage of the bill and urged the Senate to send it to his desk for his signature by Memorial Day. “The President encourages members of the Senate to put the needs of our nation’s veterans over partisan politics,” it said.

The House passed the bill by a 347-70 vote, with the program to be implemented later next year as the VA works to add private doctors to its network of outside referrals.

The wide-ranging plan would avert a catastrophic shutdown of the VA’s troubled Choice private-sector program, which would receive $5 billion to continue operating for another year before it is made a longer-term fixture at the VA. The program will run out of money as early as May 31, causing disruptions in care.

The $51 billion bill has the support of nearly 40 organizations, including The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. The program could be expanded based on veterans’ demand for private services and when VA care is deemed inadequate. The VA would be able to determine how quickly the program grows.

Rep. Phil Roe, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, praised the measure as keeping “our promise to give veterans more choice in their health care.”

The program could face escalating costs due to growing demand from veterans seeking the convenience of seeing private physicians. Some House Democrats warn the VA won’t be able to handle the costs of the newly combined “community care” program that includes Choice and other VA programs of outside care, putting the VA at risk of unexpected budget shortfalls next year.

Rep. Tim Walz, the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, cautioned that outsourcing more care to the private sector would lead to devastating cuts to VA hospitals, which many veterans see as best-suited to treat battlefield injury such as traumatic brain injury. “I am deeply concerned about the long-term health and stability of VA health care,” he said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attacked the bill as failing to do enough to keep veterans in the VA, instead opening “the doors to VA privatization.”

The bill builds on legislation passed in 2014 in response to a wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, where some veterans died while waiting months for appointments. It comes as the VA is without a permanent leader after David Shulkin was ousted as VA secretary in March. Trump has yet to name a new secretary after his first nominee, Ronny Jackson, withdrew last month.

The legislation aims to steer more patients to the private sector to relieve pressure at VA hospitals, thus improving veterans care at VA facilities and with private providers alike. Patients could also access private walk-in clinics, such as MinuteClinics, to treat minor illnesses or injury if they used VA health care in the last two years.

The bill would create a presidentially appointed commission to review the closure of underperforming VA facilities, which House Democrats opposed when the plan was drafted in March. Democrats sought restrictions on the commission but were rebuffed by House Republicans and the White House.

It would also expand a VA caregivers program to cover families of veterans of all eras, not just the families of veterans who were seriously injured in the line of duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

Veterans would be able to access private care when VA does not offer the services they need or a veteran and his VA health provider agree it is best to receive care with a private doctor. It would loosen Choice’s restrictions that limit outside care only when a veteran must wait 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility.

“This is a great victory for those want to see the VA reformed and fixed,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America. “This will hopefully ensure veterans aren’t trapped in failing VA hospitals.”

Currently, more than 30 percent of VA appointments are in the private sector.

— Associated Press