House GOP pulls border bill rather than see it defeated


Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

House Republican leaders pulled Speaker John A. Boehner’s slimmed-down legislation to address the brewing immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border rather than see it defeated, amid a conservative revolt that the $659 million proposal did not address the core issues.

Faced with certain defeat, Boehner (R-Ohio) pulled the legislation from consideration Thursday afternoon, according to guidance from leadership advisers. With more than 20 House conservatives opposed, Boehner did not have enough votes from his own Republican ranks because virtually all Democrats opposed the legislation.

The resulting lack of action would end the congressional summer session in a familiar legislative failure, as the House and Senate are poised to leave town for a five-week break and prepare for the fall elections with voters holding record levels of disgust for Congress.

With almost no Democratic support, Boehner needed to corral votes virtually entirely from within his own Republican caucus, and he faced a group of House conservatives who worked hand-in-hand with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in plotting their strategy to bring down the legislation in pursuit of a more purely conservative approach.

During a vote on an unrelated bill, a wild scene erupted on the House floor as a pack of moderate and "establishment" Republican members lashed out at Boehner and newly minted Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), demanding that they not leave town without voting on immigration legislation. In response, Boehner and McCarthy called an emergency 3 p.m. closed-door meeting to discuss a potential way forward.

Democrats blamed Boehner for chasing after conservative votes for the border bill that were never going to materialize, after he initially proposed a more robust $1.5 billion plan that likely would have drawn some Democratic votes. Instead, as conservatives balked at that price tag, GOP leaders shrank the bill in an effort to grow the Republican vote – while losing Democrats.

“The worse the bill, the more votes on the Republican side,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in the closing minutes of the debate.

The pulling of the bill marked an embarrassing failure in the first real test of the new leadership team that takes office Thursday following Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor’s resignation as majority leader.

Emerging from his office off the House floor shortly after the decision was announced, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said he was "disappointed" as he conceded that support quickly eroded Thursday.

"We've got a caucus of widely disparate views. It never really gelled," he said, adding that just "a few" Democrats were expected to help Republicans pass the bill.

Despite the setback, Rogers sought to immediately deflect attention and political pressure back onto President Obama.

"I think this will put a lot more pressure on the president to act," Rogers said. "In many ways, it was his actions and inactions that caused the crisis on the border, and we attempted in this bill to help remedy this crisis. He has the authority and power to solve the problem forthwith."

Rogers said Obama should use his power "in a responsible way." When pressed to specify what those powers would be, he said: "It's stopping the inflow. He can do that just by his word, to announce that the policies he's had in the past are rescinded and he's not going to let these people in. Be more forceful; I don't think it's a matter of money, it's a matter of sending the message out there."

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), who lives in a Republican-leaning district with a growing Hispanic population, said that failing to vote on a solution to the border crisis "would be inappropriate." He said he had planned to vote for both measures GOP leaders had planned to vote on Thursday afternoon.

"We could craft a bill that would do more damage, but both of the bills on the floor earlier were helpful to solving the problem," he added.

"I'm going to have some 'splaining to do" if nothing is passed, he added. "Hopefully, I'll have some good news for the constituents. I have a week's worth of town hall meetings starting Monday afternoon and I'd sure like to bring some good news with me."

Another Texas conservative, Rep. Joe Barton (R), said he also had planned to vote for the bills.

"I don't think it helps us" to not take up the legislation before leaving, he said. "I thought this package could pass the House. I think it would be a positive in my district. It certainly helps, it's better than current law, it's better than the current situation. I'm surprised we didn't have the votes."

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a key leadership ally, was among those infuriated by the developments. A frequent critic of colleagues and super PACs seeking to flout leadership, he didn't hold back: "Anytime the groups come out and start to score these issues, then senators get involved and have meetings and sing kumbaya and stop the process," he said.

Nunes added that the impasse had less to do with the new GOP leadership team put in place Thursday after the departure of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and reflected more on the continued influence of outside political forces. In a sign that the bills could pass, he said that several members of what he called "The Exotic Club" of members who regularly buck leadership planned to vote for the border bills.

"This is not about conservatives or establishment or anything. There's just people around here who want to vote no," he said.

The House Republican border measure would have made it easier for the U.S. government to deport Central American minors who have entered the United States illegally and provided $659 million in additional funding to federal agencies through the end of the fiscal year. The funding was significantly less than the $3.7 billion that Obama requested and less than the $1.5 billion initially floated by Boehner and his allies this month.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest issued a statement Thursday ahead of the planned votes, criticizing House Republicans for including a DACA vote as part of their legislative offering.

“It is extraordinary that the House of Representatives, after failing for more than a year to reform our broken immigration reform system, would vote to restrict a law enforcement tool that the Department of Homeland Security uses to focus resources on key enforcement priorities like public safety and border security, and provide temporary relief from deportation for people who are low priorities for removal,” Earnest said.

Ed O’Keefe and David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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