House Republicans want to use their final week in Washington before the August recess to send a signal that they are ready to govern.
As the country’s attention turns to the fight for control of the House and Senate, Republicans want to show they are capable of handling two of the nation’s toughest issues: the thousands of children crossing the border, and the veterans in need of healthcare.
“This is a crisis situation. We need to show that we can respond in a crisis in a thoughtful way,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said of the effort to move a border bill.
Getting either bill past the finish line will be a hurdle for Republicans.
The party has been divided over what to do on the border, with some expressing concern about sending any money to President Obama.
On the veterans issue, the problem is how to pay to ensure speedy access to good care. Republicans want to make sure the costs of allowing veterans to seek help from non-VA physicians, clinics and hospitals do not add to the deficit. Democrats have called for an emergency bill — adding to the deficit.
If Republicans fail to approve legislation on either issue, their final big achievement over the summer is likely to be more partisan: authorizing a lawsuit against President Obama for his use of executive action to delay ObamaCare’s employer mandate.
That vote helps Republicans bring out their base in the midterm elections, but it also helps the White House and Democrats argue the GOP is focused on the wrong issues.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Friday accused the GOP of being “giddy” over the lawsuit vote.
“House Republicans don’t have a clue about the priorities of the American people,” he said, faulting the House GOP for a lack of urgency.
He also noted that Congress plans to leave Washington for five weeks, compared to Obama’s scheduled two-week vacation to Martha’s Vineyard.
A number of Republicans acknowledged some worries about the optics.
“I think if we go home without moving on this, it’s going to be painful for a lot of people,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).
“People didn’t put us out here to say no. They put us here to govern,” Kinzinger said. “It’s something that we have to go for and have to do to show the American people we can solve big problems.”
Congress has been known more for its dysfunction than anything else since Republicans took over control of the House after the Tea Party wave of 2010. That’s one reason Congress’s approval rating stands at 15 percent in the latest Gallup survey from early July.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said he wasn’t sure Congress’s approval rating could sink much further.
“I’m not one of these guys that falls into the little traps of, ‘Oh we have to do this or world ends,’” Nunes said. But, he said, “It’s the right thing to do to put legislation out and pass it.”
The GOP thinks much of the talk about a do-nothing Congress is unfair. Republican leaders have repeatedly pointed to the number of jobs bills the lower chamber has approved that have languished in the Senate. They’ve called on President Obama to embrace their proposals.
But they also realize past fights over the debt ceiling and last fall’s damaging battle that led to a 16-day government shutdown have raised questions about the GOP’s ability to govern.
Those questions aren’t going to make much of a difference in the fight for the House, where Republicans are all but assured of retaining their majority.
But in the battle for the Senate, doubts about the GOP could make a difference.
The pressure on Republicans to deliver on the VA issue was clear when a Democratic motion-to-instruct conferees to agree to the Senate bill nearly won approval in a vote last week.
Such Democratic motions always lose, but this one was just narrowly defeated in a 205-207 vote, with 13 Republicans supporting it.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said he voted for the measure because he thinks “the American public wants to see us move something forward and do it quickly before we lose any more veterans that are still out there waiting on lists.”
“We’ve got to show some leadership to actually get it done,” said Denham, an Air Force veteran.
On the border issue, Republicans are particularly eager to distinguish themselves from the president, who they argue has been hands-off on the crisis.
“The president came to Texas and did fundraisers, and wouldn’t go to the border,” said Rep. Kay GrangerKay GrangerA case for the Yarmuth-Price resolution Congress reaches milestone on countering anti-Semitism Hoyer blasts GOP plan to use Ebola cash in Zika fight MORE (R-Texas), who has led the House GOP working group on the border. “And then we go home for a month and don’t do anything? We’re not going to be in that spot. If we don’t take action on this, they’ll say the Congress didn’t do anything either.”
House Republicans have still not yet coalesced around a specific border plan. But rank-and-file members emerged from an unusual Friday conference meeting adamant that a border bill of some sort will get a vote. Talk of seeking solutions, and showing the American people the House at work, was the dominant message.
“Our conference is coming together behind a solution to this problem. We’ve got to solve this problem, even if the president won’t,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who takes over as majority whip on July 31. “The House Republican Conference is going to lead, and we’re going to put a solution on the table.”
“Next week, we’ll have an opportunity for the American people to see that we want to work with the administration and we want to pass a bill through the Senate,” said House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas). “But it will be a bill that says we will not allow the laws of this country to be violated.”
— Martin Matishak contributed to this story.