The initial outcry in Washington over the scale and scope of the child migrant surge at the U.S.-Mexico border signaled this could be a moment for rare bipartisan action.
But as with most issues on Capitol Hill, hopes for cooperation soon dissipated with rancor and disagreements now boiling over between the parties — not to mention within Democrats’ and Republicans’ own ranks.
With just days left until the monthlong August recess, lawmakers seemed as far apart as ever Tuesday — the eve of a House Republican Conference meeting that could determine whether, and how, the chamber moves forward with legislation to fund additional resources at the border and various policy changes to stem the tide of the crisis.
Here are four of the biggest reasons that first glimmer of optimism Republicans and Democrats could cobble together a deal might ultimately have been misplaced.
First, for House Republicans, it’s still aboutimmigration. Republican leaders might have hoped that a specially-appointed “working group” tasked with advising the conference on the border crisis would help focus the conversation on the matter at hand, rather than let it devolve into the loaded rhetoric of the immigration debate that has plagued the party for the past year and a half.
It has proved virtually impossible to separate the two issues, however, with tempers still flaring on a number of fronts — from the president’s alleged untrustworthiness to concerns that undocumented immigrants are running rampant on the taxpayer’s dime, and fear that passing a border funding bill that isn’t stringent enough could be perceived by the public as too lenient.
At least 33 House Republicans want Obama to end his executive action that grants stays of deportation for young people brought into the country illegally by their parents, hoping send a message to Central American countries that their children won’t get a free pass at the Southwest border. And the six Republican House members from Oklahoma don’t want any more unaccompanied minors shipped to holding facilities housed at the state’s Fort Sill army base.
There are even divisions within the seven-member House working group regarding just how far to go. The same day the members signed off on its report of recommendations to leadership, two of them — Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia and Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Carter of Texas — introduced their own bills addressing the border crisis that tack significantly further to the right. Spokesmen for the lawmakers said the measures were intended to compliment, not supplement, the task force’s work, but a lack of solidarity among seven, hand-picked members could serve as a harbinger for how hard it will be to build consensus with the larger, unwieldy Republican rank and file.
Second, House Democrats are confounded by a difficult choice. Republicans are united on one thing: Any funding bill that comes to the floor will contain policy riders, and one of those riders will be a revision to a 2008 trafficking law to expedite deportations of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border. Reality is sinking in among Democratic leaders that a condition of giving the president the money to stem the border crisis will be swallowing what for them is a bitter pill, one they say would strip children of key protections against exploitation and harm in their home countries.
Democratic leaders sense that a growing number of their members, particularly those who hail from the Hispanic and Progressive caucuses, are prepared to withhold their votes on those grounds, meaning they will have to either appeal to their members to hold their noses and vote “yes” or stand with them and vote “no.” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has already begun to harden her stance against changing the 2008 law after saying it wouldn’t be a “deal breaker” for her, though she still has not drawn a line in the sand regarding how she would vote if the language was included.
There could be practical consequences attached to not supporting the funding bill: Republicans could need Democratic votes to get the legislation over the finish line. But there could also be political consequences, with “no” votes opening Democrats up to criticism from Republicans that Pelosi and her party were in favor of the tweaks before they were against them, and that Democrats are turning away from their own party leadership. Speaker John A. Boehner seized upon that talking point Tuesday morning, suggesting in a statement that Democratic leaders’ waffling could jeopardize the entire effort.
Third, both parties are in for a challenging whip operation. If House Republicans want to pass a border funding package that could have some viability in the Senate, it’s going to have to be at least somewhat bipartisan, and they’re going to have to get Democratic votes. In that case, with Republicans on the right reluctant to support legislation that doesn’t contain red-meat policy provisions, and Democrats on the left unwilling to make compromises on changes to the trafficking law, leaders on both sides of the aisle are going to have to corral votes from middle. It’s likely Republicans will have to reach out to Democrats to make a deal, but Democrats won’t necessarily want to help, especially when there’s continued angst over riders and leaders could see an opening to extract compromises in exchange for their votes.
The challenge could be compounded by House GOP leadership’s current state of flux. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia has been largely out of the loop since losing his June 10 primary — to an opponent who targeted Cantor’s support for an immigration overhaul, no less — and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, slated to replace Cantor on Aug. 1, has been basically working two jobs. The incoming whip, current Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, is also dealing with the transition.
A GOP leadership aide close to the whip operation insisted that McCarthy and Scalise are working double-duty in anticipation of their new roles, and said their collaboration and engagement on this particular issue leaves them well prepared to tackle the most ambitious of vote counts. It’s the Democrats’ indecision on where they stand, the aide said, that is making things complicated.
Fourth, the House is stymied by money and time. Republicans are in agreement that the president’s $3.7 billion ask is too high, but how much they want to cut is another sticking point. For some GOP lawmakers, no topline number will be fiscally prudent enough; others might quibble that too conservative a sum might not fund all of the necessarily priorities outlined by the working group.
There’s also the question of whether the funds will be offset or classified as “emergency,” per Obama’s request. Republicans would all prefer the funding to be paid for, even those who don’t insist on it — though there’s a substantial number of members who do. Members don’t, however, know where to find such offsets, with non-controversial savings hard to come by. Whether appropriators are able to present members with a viable option could determine whether the package has enough votes to advance.
All this is taking place as days left until the August recess are down to the single digits.
Should Congress fail to act now, it could pick things back up in September, but the legislative days then are numbered too, before members go off to campaign in advance of the midterms. Plus, they could find themselves consumed with another piece of pressing business: A deal to avoid a government shutdown at the end of that month.