House Republican leaders were ambushed by another conservative insurrection on Thursday, forced to scrap a pivotal vote on a border security bill and scramble to find a solution amid a familiar whirlwind of acrimony and finger-pointing.
The failure to move forward with legislation aimed at coping with a surge of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border left Republicans unable to act on a problem that they have repeatedly described as a national crisis. As the drama unfolded in the House, the Senate also failed to advance legislation to address the immigration crisis, unable to overcome a procedural hurdle and then leaving town for five-week summer break.
The congressional chaos ensured that President Obama’s administration will not have the resources necessary to stem the recent tide of tens of thousands of migrants from Central America, many of them children entering the United States alone, until mid-September at the earliest. The only two significant measures approved by Congress as of Thursday were bills authorizing broad reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a nine-month extension of federal highway-construction funding.
As late as Thursday morning, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his allies claimed they had enough votes in the GOP-run chamber to pass a stripped-down, $659 million border bill aimed at speeding up deportations. But a revolt by hard-liners — inspired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — led Boehner to pull the bill in the face of certain defeat.
The retreat sparked panic among GOP moderates, who have felt marginalized and bullied during years of warfare with a small but influential tea party caucus. In a remarkable scene Thursday afternoon, angry rank-and-file members rushed to the House floor to surround Boehner and his newly installed majority leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), waving their arms and jabbing their fingers as they demanded a vote.
After an emergency meeting in the Capitol basement, GOP leaders emerged with vows to try again Friday — though with no clear idea what they might be voting on.
“You can’t go home!” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) shouted in an interview after the closed-door huddle. He suggested such a move would send a terrible message to Obama: “You’re right, we’re a do-nothing Congress.”
According to lawmakers, few Republicans spoke out against Boehner’s border plan in the meeting, and a handful said they might be coaxed into voting yes if a few tweaks were made to the legislation. That set in motion a series of smaller get-togethers throughout the evening, as senior Republicans tried to massage the bill to make changes to draw enough GOP votes.
“America did not send us here to do nothing,” said Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.), a junior member of the leadership team facing a tough November election.
Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.) said that he and about 10 other Republicans were seeking assurances that the legislation would be stripped of language “that actually promotes insecurity at the border and promotes more illegal aliens.” But Brooks couldn’t specify what provisions he didn’t like.
“This bill has things in there that make things worse, not better,” he said.
A lack of action would end the congressional summer session in a familiar legislative failure as the House and Senate leave town for a five-week break and begin preparing for the fall elections — all as voters express record levels of disgust with Congress.
For the second straight year, lawmakers have choked on dealing with legislation related to immigration. In 2013, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a broad rewrite of immigration law and border security on a bipartisan vote, providing a long pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. The more conservative House has never been able to muster sufficient support among Republicans to even debate a similar bill.
Now, in a much more modest effort to cope with tens of thousands of Central American children at the border, both chambers of Congress are poised to come up empty.
In the Senate, Democrats were unable to garner the 60 votes needed to advance a bill providing $2.7 billion in emergency relief to federal agencies detaining and deporting immigrants. Republicans and a group of centrist Democrats objected to the plan’s price tag and its failure to rewrite laws giving Central American minors special protections compared with those from Mexico.
In the House, Boehner sought to corral votes from within his own party, needing support from at least 217 of 234 Republicans. But a sizable group of House conservatives worked hand in hand with Cruz, plotting to bring down the legislation in pursuit of an even more hard-line approach.
Democrats blamed Boehner for chasing conservative votes that were never going to materialize, after initially proposing a more robust $1.5 billion plan that probably would have drawn some Democratic votes. Instead, 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 bill’s retraction marked a humiliating setback in the first real test of a new leadership team that took office Thursday after Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) resigned as majority leader.
Emerging from his office off the House floor shortly after the decision to punt on the bill was announced, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said he was “disappointed” and conceded that support had quickly eroded.
“It never really jelled,” he said.
Rogers encouraged Obama to act on his own and rescind a 2012 executive order directing immigration officials to use broad discretion in deciding whether to deport undocumented children in the United States.
“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.”
In addition to the border bill, Boehner’s team had offered to let conservatives vote on a separate measure to curtail Obama’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, which gave protections to about 500,000 immigrants who were brought to the country as children. By adding a vote on DACA to the docket, many tea party Republicans said Boehner was able to win them over.
The House Republican border measures would have made it easier for the government to deport Central American minors who have entered the United States illegally and would provide $659 million in additional funding to federal agencies through the end of the fiscal year. Obama had requested $3.7 billion.
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.
Some conservatives remained wary despite the chance to vote against DACA. “I don’t want to vote for a bill that is going to look good but do nothing,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said about the offer on Wednesday. “I’m not as convinced as some of these members are.”
But many Republicans were furious with Bachmann and others who held talks with Cruz, including at a closed meeting Wednesday in his Senate office.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), an ally of Boehner and McCarthy, criticized those lawmakers and outside organizations that rallied opposition.
“Any time the groups come out and start to score these issues, then senators get involved and have secret meetings and sing ‘Kumbaya’ and stop the process,” Nunes said.