Oops, they did it again.
A spending measure designed to address the ongoing crisis of undocumented children entering at the country's southern border was shelved Thursday because the Republican leadership couldn't rally the necessary votes to pass it. That decision raised the specter that the House would adjourn for a five-week summer recess without passing any sort of fix for the border crisis. And, it amounted to yet another defeat for maligned House Speaker John Boehner and other members of the Republican leadership team who not only pushed hard for the bill's passage but also confidently predicted victory earlier Thursday. (At press time, there was some question as to whether some sort of legislation could be cobbled together to gain a majority of Republican votes. Even if that happens, the inability of Republicans to pass the leadership-backed vehicle is a remarkable swing-and-a-miss.)
The failure of the GOP leadership's immigration solution fits a now-familiar pattern for congressional Republicans. Led by Boehner, the party's top brass fight with President Obama on the parameters of a legislative solution to a problem in the country. In hopes of answering the "do nothing" charges leveled at them by Democrats, those same GOP leaders put a proposal on the table that offers a handful of concessions but nowhere near the number the White House is demanding. The tea party faction in the House — led by Sen. Ted Cruz (yes, you read that right) — balks, demanding that the GOP make no concessions of any sort to the president. The party leaders whip support for the bill but, ultimately, find that 20 (or so) of their conference will not be for it under any circumstances. That means Boehner either has to a) pass legislation with Democratic votes or b) pull proposals off the House floor to avoid embarrassing losses.
The issues change — tax increases, immigration, the farm bill and so on and so forth — but the underlying reality remains the same: House Republicans simply cannot be led. Not by Boehner, the man who is tasked with the unenviable job of serving as Speaker in Name Only (SINO), not by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who formerly served as majority whip, and not by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who won a leadership election to fill McCarthy's old job this summer.
(In a way, it was fitting that the immigration bill failed on the same day that Eric Cantor said goodbye to his colleagues in Congress. Cantor, who stepped down as majority leader effective today, was beaten by little-known tea party figure Dave Brat in a stunning upset last month.)
What Thursday's machinations proved — or, maybe more accurately, re-proved — is that no matter what happens at the ballot box this fall, the Republican party is in the midst of a massive intraparty struggle that makes it incapable of laying out its own vision for governance.
Republicans, thanks to the unpopularity of Obama, a Senate map perfectly tailored to them and a redistricting process that has made the House playing field the size of a postage stamp, will almost certainly pick up Senate — and likely House — seats Nov. 4. But they will do so — as today's actions (or lack thereof showed) — in spite of themselves. Gaining seats — or even control of the Senate — is the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a gaping wound for Republicans at this point. It won't cure what ails them.
The party remains deeply riven between an establishment wing that believes in fighting on principle but, eventually, sitting down at the negotiating table and hammering out the best deal available, and a tea party caucus that sees any compromise as capitulation.
That split played out over the past 48 hours in the Capitol as Boehner and his allies worked to convince wavering Republicans to vote for the $659 million immigration package before heading out for recess, while Cruz held court with the most conservative wing of the House GOP and urged them to stand strong on principle.
Boehner and Cruz had two very different motivations for doing what they did. Boehner wanted to pass some sort of immigration bill to a) show the public that Republicans could offer their own solutions to the crisis and b) put the ball back into the court of Obama and Senate Democrats, who have called for (and passed) legislation with a significantly higher pricetag. Cruz, who is putting together the building blocks of a 2016 presidential bid, wanted to ensure that conservatives in the House didn't walk away from what he insisted was a fundamental pillar of the party (don't just keep throwing money at problems) while also, not for nothing, bolstering his reputation as the biggest tea party darling in the country.
The takeaway from the immigration tussle? This is a party at war with itself. The inability/unwillingness of the party's House majority to get on the same page on virtually any major legislative issue has rendered it impossible for Boehner to do his job and made the term "Republican party leader" laughably inaccurate. Winning in 2014 won't solve those problems. The party has to hope that the coming 2016 presidential race, which likely will feature Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as well as more establishment types like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, will be the pivotal front in the battle for control of the GOP.
Maybe. But there's a long time between now and 2016, and House Republicans continue to flail helplessly while the country watches, mouth agape.