How Republicans turned a simple immigration vote into a PR nightmare

August 1, 2014

Sometime late-ish Friday night, House Republicans may well pass a measure to fund efforts to address the crisis of undocumented immigrants streaming into the country. No one will notice.  And it's their own fault.


U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) (2nd R) pass through the Statuary Hall after a vote on the floor August 1, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For the entirety of this final week before Congress heads out on a five-week(!) August break, Republican leaders had insisted privately (and publicly) that they would pass a $659 million spending bill that would put the onus of how to handle the border crisis back onto Senate Democrats and President Obama.  Politically speaking, the argument made total sense.  By passing some emergency aid -- but not nearly the $3.7 billion that Obama requested -- House Republicans could go back to their districts with this storyline: We are responsive to this crisis but we haven't (and won't) give the president a blank check. That's a good message for the Republican base and, not for nothing, one that has some appeal to independents worried about rising federal government spending too.

Instead, House Republicans couldn't muster the necessary votes to pass the $659 million bill. Which led to a hastily-organized conference meeting Thursday afternoon, a slew of stories about the re-occurring problems the party has had in convincing tea party-aligned members to support its agenda and finally a scheduled vote to pass an as-yet-unclear piece of legislation designed to address the problems at the border later today.

What happened -- or more accurately didn't happen -- on the House floor on Thursday turned the immigration funding story from one focused on why President Obama wasn't doing more to make things happen (his numbers are terrible on immigration) to one almost entirely focused on the continued unrest within the Republican ranks.

Obama, thrilled to have the national spotlight shining on someone other than him on the issue, held an impromptu press conference Friday afternoon to blast the GOP. "They can't pass the bill," Obama said of House Republicans. "They can't even pass their own version of the bill." He added that the new legislation Republicans would pass Friday night would be "the most extreme and unworkable versions of the bill." Obama's comments followed on a slew of press released from congressional Democrats reveling in Republicans' inability to rally the majority of the majority behind a bill that the GOP leadership had made clear was a priority. News stories -- and cable coverage -- focused on the GOP's ongoing civil war, with stories focused on, among other things, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's increasing influence among House conservatives.

This is the latest in a string of incidents in which Republicans have been their own worst enemy -- often because they simply can't get out of their own way. Given their dismal approval ratings, the best way for Republicans to handle almost every issue -- including this one -- is to make as few waves as possible. Stay out of the news. Let President Obama do the heavy lifting on what the funding level ends up as. This issue is a no-win politically -- people don't like the idea of kids being shipped back to dangerous places but also don't love people coming here illegally or spending billions of dollars that may or may not solve the problem.

And yet, Republicans found a way to make the story all about them in the dying days of this session of Congress. It's remarkable -- and not in a good way.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Philip Bump · August 1, 2014