Congress’s final month in session this summer was dominated by a debate over what to do with the wave of child immigrants crossing the border.
It created a chaotic end to an otherwise sleepy session, with House Republicans pulling legislation from a scheduled vote, and then delaying their recess to approve an amended version.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)
Cruz and Sessions were thorns in the side of House GOP leaders.
It’s a familiar role for Cruz, who regularly huddled with House conservatives and urged them to push leaders to include tough language intended to prevent President Obama from expanding his program deferring the deportations of certain undocumented people known as “dreamers” who came to the United States as children.
The bill the House approved ended up including that language.
Sessions also emerged as a player. A staunch critic of immigration reform, Sessions made his displeasure with the House approach loud and clear.
In fact, several members argued Sessions more than Cruz affected how the fight played out.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)
King gained national attention and some ridicule last year when he said many young people coming across the border had “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling drugs.
Republicans hoping their party can appeal to Hispanic voters aren’t always crazy about King’s offbeat comments.
But as the dust settled on the final version of a House bill, King emerged as a winner.
King set up meetings between House conservatives and Cruz, and pressured GOP leaders to change their approach. The bill’s price tag dropped from $1.5 billion, and the package included a separate vote on legislation attacking Obama’s executive actions on immigration (which was even strengthened along the way).
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)
Pelosi and Hoyer kept their party largely united in opposing the House’s border bill, forcing Republicans to come up with every vote on their own.
Pelosi suffered some missteps early in the process, at first sounding supportive of changes to the 2008 human trafficking law before turning in opposition. But by forcing Republicans to once again rely on their own for votes, she and Hoyer made the GOP look divided.
Dem backers of 2008 human trafficking law
When the White House first requested $3.7 billion in supplemental border funding, it also supported tweaks to a 2008 human trafficking law.
Though the changes weren’t included in the actual funding request, the White House wanted flexibility in processing Central American migrants to return them home more quickly.
Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.) were quick to slam the door on the idea.
They argued the changes backed by Republicans could undercut due process for kids in need of protection. It led the White House to shift course and threaten to veto the House GOP bill over the changes to the human trafficking law.
Weeks ago it seemed the law would likely be changed. Now that seems a bridge too far.
On Thursday, it appeared the House GOP would leave Washington without a vote on border legislation. Then the Texas delegation spoke out.
Members like Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) didn't want to return to their border-state districts without having a measure to tout before their constituents.
After GOP leaders vowed to hold a vote, Texans gained a victory.
“I’m a happy camper,” Farenthold said Friday morning.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)
These two federal agencies are expected to run out of money in the next two months. Now it is unclear where the funds will come from.
ICE is expected to run dry of funds in mid-August, while CBP will be short-changed by mid-September.
The administration will likely move money around to ensure their operations continue, but the lack of a supplemental won’t make life easy.
The Department of Health and Human Services was also in line to get nearly $2 billion in funds to provide humanitarian aid to nearly 60,000 child migrants.
Congress’s approval ratings were already near record lows before this week.
The inability to send a border bill to President Obama’s request, and the focus on both sides in avoiding political blame is unlikely to sit well with voters.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Boehner and Reid both had trouble getting a bill through their respective chambers.
Reid failed, and the Democratic leader lost support from a handful of Democrats as Republicans unified against the bill.
Boehner succeeded, but only after another embarrassing day in which Republicans delayed their recess and pulled legislation from the floor.
Reid left town without passing a bill, but at least was able to drive a bit of drama in the House when he suggested he would happily take up their border bill and add the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill in response.
That move sent Boehner scrambling to quell unrest, as conservatives had feared Reid would do just that if they voted for a House bill.
Still, at the end of the day, Boehner and his reworked leadership team were able to drive a bill across the finish line. It took a delayed recess, but Republicans were able to go home and tell constituents they passed something. Which is more than the Senate can say, even if the House bill stands no chance of becoming law.
The president asked Congress to send him $3.7 billion to address a humanitarian crisis on the border. He called it an emergency. He didn’t get a cent.
Obama on Friday slammed Republicans for producing “the most extreme and unworkable versions of the bill,” and noted he’ll have to spend the recess shifting resources to keep border operations working.
At the same time, the inability for Congress to produce a border bill clears the way for Obama to take further executive action on the border, much to GOP chagrin.
The president himself noted that GOP leaders said Thursday as their bill faltered that Obama had power to take steps on the border himself. Of course, the steps Obama will take are not likely to please many Republicans.