WASHINGTON (AP) — Winners in a bruising struggle with Republicans over homeland security funding and immigration, minority Democrats had unity on their side, along with a politician's understandable fear of terrorist attacks and the Constitution's separation of powers.
The tea party-aligned, bitter-end Republican losers had outrage, and in the House, an unbending unwillingness to compromise that some of their own rank and file judged counterproductive.
The result was a rout that some Republicans say — and Democrats no doubt hope — portends poorly for their party.
Republicans "have got to find a level of cohesion where we can at least pass legislation that we get to the president's desk," said Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida as the party's attempt to roll back President Barack Obama's immigration directives flamed out. "If we can't do that, we fail to govern and we lose 2016."
Whatever the long-term implications of Republican divisions, the lessons of this one episode seem simple.
In the current version of divided government, Republicans must avoid significant divisions of their own and have enough Democratic votes in the Senate to assure passage of legislation they favor. They hold the biggest majority in decades in the House. Yet on the pivotal vote of the struggle, an attempt by their own leadership to pass a three-week stand-alone funding bill, more than 50 defected, empowering Democrats.
In other cases, Republicans will need even more Democratic votes in both houses to enact laws over Obama's opposition.
Their recent failure to override his veto of a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was evidence of that. A measure to rein in the president's ability to negotiate a nuclear accord with Iran looms as another test.
But they never had a chance of prevailing over Obama and the Democrats in their attempt to condition funding for the Department of Homeland Security on a repeal of the administration's immigration directives
"We all knew how this was going to end," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., during the week as the final scenes of struggle played out.
At the end, House Speaker John Boehner publicly sympathized with the rebels who had resisted surrender the longest, but like Dent, expressed no surprise about the outcome.
"I am as outraged and frustrated as you at the lawless and unconstitutional actions of this president," said the speaker, who had outlined as long ago as late last year the general strategy that was pursued. Yet he said if legislation weren't approved, a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security would result, and sketched a doomsday political scenario. "Imagine if, God forbid, another terrorist attack hits the United States."
He also said, correctly, that Senate Republicans had "never found a way to win this fight," and noted that the issue was already before the courts, which would ultimately decide the outcome.
There was no surprise in that, either. At a two-day Republican lawmakers' retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, this winter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explained to rambunctious House Republicans that it often takes 60 votes to prevail in the Senate, where Republicans hold 54 seats. Afterward, some House members told McConnell he was going to have to try harder to persuade Democrats to vote across the aisle.
Actually, a faction of House conservatives made it harder on McConnell.
Legislation drafted for the House in January approved funding for the Department of Homeland Security if the president agreed to roll back a directive that eased the threat of deportation of millions of immigrants.
Demanding more, dissidents insisted on a second concession. They changed the measure so it also called for the reversal of a separate Obama directive that had eased the threat of deportation of so-called "dreamers," immigrants who had been brought to the United States illegally as children.
The result was to solidify Democratic opposition in the Senate and expose divisions among Senate Republicans, some of whom recoiled at the prospect of changing the status of Dreamers.
Throughout the struggle, it was a Republican article of faith that Obama had exceeded his constitutional authority in issuing immigration directives. After all, Republicans said the president himself had said he lacked the power.
"This is about trying to defend the Constitution," said Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona.
Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia, a first-term lawmaker, said the House was "is in this mess because of the unconstitutional decisions from the president."
Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona said he was saddened at having to choose between "funding our national security or standing for the Constitution."
However heartfelt the rhetoric, members of Congress don't have the power to rule a presidential act unconstitutional.
Only the courts can do that.
"When there are differences of opinion as to what is constitutional and what is not constitutional, a court makes that determination," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, delivering a gentle refresher course on the Constitution to those on his own side of the aisle.
It's been that way, he pointed out, since a case the Supreme Court decided in 1803.
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.