July 9

The government is facing two similar crises right now that demand short-term fixes even as we contemplate how to solve them in the long term: transportation infrastructure and immigration. In both cases, the outcome is going to be determined by just how far Republicans, particularly in the House, are willing to go to watch Barack Obama suffer.

When congressional Republicans decided literally on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated to obstruct and oppose everything he wanted to do, it was a decision that could be justified both politically and substantively. Making the President’s tenure as difficult as possible would be good for them, because they were unlikely to get too much blame so long as he looked like he was failing to get things done, and most of what he wanted to do they disagreed with anyway. But they may not have realized at the time how a kind of absolutist fetish would overtake their party, making even the most basic kinds of legislating all but impossible. In short order it came to the point where even agreeing on a budget or raising the debt ceiling so the United States of America doesn’t go into default was seen as an act of betrayal.

But what do you do when there’s an acute problem that you claim to want to solve — and may even sincerely want to solve — but solving it means coming to an agreement with the President? That’s what Republicans are facing right now on these issues, and they have a rather profound choice to make.

The first issues is the highway trust fund, which is about to run out of money, putting as many as 700,000 jobs at risk as transportation projects around the country grind to a halt. This provides a similar, if not quite identical, problem for the White House and opportunity for Republicans. A long-term solution for the trust fund, like increasing gas taxes, could take some time to negotiate. But in the short term, the solution is pretty simple: the fund needs money. In the past, Congress has made up shortfalls by just appropriating it from general revenues. No sane person thinks it’s okay to just let roads and bridges fall into disrepair. So the responsible thing would be to say, let’s just keep the fund afloat, then start working on its future.

There are Republicans trying to work out a plan for the trust fund, like House Ways and Means Committee chair Dave Camp, who is working with Democrats on the question (the sticking point is where the money will come from). Assuming they come up with something, the Republican caucus in the House will face another choice: fix the problem, or just say no.

On immigration, yesterday the White House made a request for $3.7 billion in funding to address the large number of unaccompanied minors coming to the southern border, the funds to cover border protection, dealing with the children who are here, expediting the legal proceedings required by law to determine their status (and probably deport most of them), and working with Central American countries on their return. While one can certainly argue about the details, the proposal was focused not on the future of American immigration policy, but on this immediate issue, which both Republicans and Democrats say is a crisis that has to be addressed. The response from Republicans was to make a bunch of demands that are either just ill-informed (send the National Guard to the border!) or are concerned less with the current problem than with long-term changes to immigration policy they’d like to see.

In other words, it sure looks like Republicans — the ones talking so far, anyway — don’t have much interest in actually trying to do something about this situation they’re decrying. As Kevin Drum wrote:

The crisis along the border is tailor made for Republicans. It makes their base hopping mad, it juices their campaign fundraising, and anytime the government is unable to address a problem it makes Obama look bad. Why on earth would Republicans want to do anything to change any of this?

You might say that’s a cynical view, but so far we don’t have much reason to think it’s incorrect.

My guess is that Republicans are going to go along with a highway trust fund fix, but not with an immigration fix. The reason is that if the news is blanketed with stories about transportation projects shutting down and construction workers losing their jobs, it’s going to be impossible for them to say it’s Obama’s fault, when they could have just appropriated the money. On the other hand, because the border crisis is more complicated in both its causes and potential solutions, they can keep blaming further chaos on the President. So that’s what they’re likely to do.