Will House Republicans Lead or Melt Down on Border Crisis Bill?

Posted: Jul 31, 2014 6:09 PM
Will House Republicans Lead or Melt Down on Border Crisis Bill?

Mission Accomplished, Harry Reid -- for now. The fractious House Republican caucus is once again teetering on the brink of embarrassing its leadership and handing a political win to Democrats and critics who say the GOP is too radical and irresponsible to govern. This has become a self-defeating tradition. The payroll tax flop of Christmas 2011. The fiscal cliff mess of 2012. The shutdown debacle of 2013. In each case, purists managed to derail legislation or leadership-backed compromises "on principle," with no viable alternative. The result: Democratic victory, featuring less desirable policy outcomes, fewer (if any) concessions from the other side, relying on Democrats for votes, and gaping public relations wounds. Yesterday afternoon, it appeared as though House Republicans were intent on adding "the border crisis fail of 2014" to the list. Evidently, though, enough members are angry about the prospect of going home for the summer recess without having voted on anything that they're going to give this thing one more shot tomorrow:

A few thoughts:

(1) Politically speaking, it would be malpractice to skip town having done nothing on this issue -- which everyone agrees is an acute, urgent crisis. Conservatives have not been bashful about labeling it as such, and for good reason. So Republicans' table-pounding about the problem, and endless demands that President Obama go to the border to survey the situation, all looks like cynical, empty point-scoring if they then proceed to do literally nothing about it before heading home for a month. Members will be asked about this crisis over the break. Republicans need an answer to give beyond, "Obama and the Democrats are terrible, and this situation is intolerable." They need to be able to say, "we've passed X bill that accomplishes Y and Z to alleviate the unacceptable status quo" -- and then pivot to nailing Obama and the Democrats, etc. etc. Passing nothing would also led Reid off the hook for his shameless obstructionism, rather than applying appropriate pressure via passed legislation. There's a reason why Reid has been doing everything within his power to derail Boehner's bill, including floating theories explicitly designed to turn House Republicans against each other. Sprinting into his trap -- again! -- would be unfathomably stupid.

(2) On principle, Republicans (at least nominally) hold one of Congress' two chambers. They're asking voters to give them control of the other one, too. Yes, it's true that Harry Reid has promised to kill the House proposal in the Senate and that Obama has issued a veto threat. In other words, even if the House passes something, it won't become law. Shame on the Democrats for playing such myopic and cynical games. But that is not an excuse for Republicans to abandon attempts to govern. Complaining about the other side's intransigence rings uniquely hollow when your own side can't get its act together in support of any solution. If Republicans believe the border situation is a genuine and immediate crisis, they have an obligation to act.

(3) On policy, I am not a member of the reactionary "do something!" crowd. Doing something harmful is worse than doing nothing, which is part of the reason why I opposed the Senate-passed 'gang of eight' comprehensive immigration reform package (even as I'm not broadly opposed to meaningful reform). I'm not here to tell you that the House proposal under consideration is perfect because it's not. Conn has listed a number of conservative objections to the bill, some of which have been disputed by Speaker Boehner's office. Sen. Ted Cruz (update: and Sen. Jeff Sessions) have intervened by convincing a number of representatives that it's imperative to pass legislation aimed at blocking the president from extending his DREAM-style (DACA) executive order to illegal immigrants beyond the cut-offs he established in 2012. Unless you move to shut off the magnet, Cruz argues, the problem can't possibly be resolved. This is a valuable critique of the House bill, and it induced Boehner to offer a compromise: He'd call for a vote on the underlying bill first, then immediately move to a vote on legislation addressing Cruz's point if the first bill passed. The goal was to pressure recalcitrant members into supporting the leadership's offering in exchange for a fair hearing and an up-or-down vote on Cruz's idea. Enough conservatives decided that this was insufficient, and balked -- on behalf of this "principle." Thus, garnering 218 votes became impossible, with Nancy Pelosi whipping hard against the bill. (Think about that for a moment: Obama, Reid and Pelosi all detest this bill. Surely it can't be a total "sellout"). In spite of its flaws -- real and imagined -- here are three things the House bill does:

(a) It changes the 2008 law that forces our border control agencies to treat illegal immigrants from central America differently from unlawful entrants from Mexico and Canada. This would make newly-arriving illegal immigrants eligible for immediate repatriation without a mandatory deportation hearing.

(b) It provides funding to facilitate an accelerated adjudication process for the minors who are currently being warehoused by the federal government at taxpayer expense. Let's differentiate between legitimate refugees and everyone else as soon as possible, and send the latter group home. The bill entails repatriation appropriations, too. These expenses are offset (at least in theory) with other cuts, and spend far less than the Senate's version, which de-emphasizes enforcement. The Congressional Budget Office has confirmed that the proposal would make it easier to repatriate illegal immigrants.

(c) It allocates money to treat these kids humanely -- food, shelter, etc -- in the interim. It is not a conservatives principle to oppose humanitarianism. As we deal with this crisis, we're not going to let the kids starve. That's not controversial.

(d) In addition to those three points, the bill's passage would guarantee a DACA vote, which Cruz et al have been insisting upon.

So, no, this legislative package cannot be accused of "doing nothing" to address at least some of the root causes of the present crisis. It is not worse than inaction. If conservative opponents have additional ideas that can improve the bill and tighten up problematic language prior to a vote, let's incorporate them. But passage requires 218 votes. That's a political reality and it cannot be discarded as an afterthought. Political realities and cold hard facts are always central considerations, unless you choose to inhabit a fictional universe. Finally, conservatives routinely inveigh against Obama's executive overreach (they're suing him over it, in fact), and they lambaste Boehner for relying on Democratic votes to pass certain items. While GOP dysfunction does not justify presidential lawlessness, it makes it easier for Democrats to defend politically. That matters. Also, making concessions to Nancy Pelosi in order to peel off Democratic votes only becomes necessary in cases like these if a relatively small number of Republican members make it so. (Technically, seeking Democratic votes would not violate the so-called 'Hastert Rule' in this case because a majority of the majority caucus appears to back Boehner's plan). It is not un-conservative to engage in serious, good faith efforts at governance. Enough of the unforced errors. These pathetic moves by Harry "the border is secure" Reid have provided House Republicans with an opportunity to lead:

They should seize it.

UPDATE - Nope. Kill the bill, argues Bill Kristol.