The emergency immigration bill House Speaker John A. Boehner initially proposed last week was never going to become law — and he knew it. President Obama had already promised a veto, so the bill was mostly a political message, designed to show that House Republicans could act decisively in a crisis.
Except they couldn't.
Tea party conservatives revolted, demanding a chance to undo Obama's decision to defer deportations of young immigrants. And the speaker added to the picture of disarray by calling on Obama to use more executive power in the border crisis — only a few days after authorizing a lawsuit against the president for excessive use of executive power.
The disaster was a public humiliation for both Boehner and his newly elevated majority leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) — on McCarthy's first week in his new job.
But it was only the most recent of many such battles in the House Republicans' unresolved civil war. Their challenges to Boehner's leadership on major issues have become an annual affair. In 2011, the issue was the federal debt ceiling (conservatives wanted a crisis; Boehner didn't). In 2012, it was the “fiscal cliff” (Boehner wanted to make a deal on tax rates; the tea party rejected it). In 2013, it was a 16-day government shutdown forced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other conservatives over Boehner's warnings.
In last week's episode, moderate Republicans — and yes, there are a few left — said they found the failure to pass the initial version of the bill “terribly disappointing and infuriating,” in the words of Pennsylvania's Rep. Charlie Dent. It took two more days of confusion before the House passed a toughened version of the bill late Friday.
New Jersey Republican Jon Runyan said the episode exemplified what is driving him to retire from Congress this year. “Why I'm leaving this place is because we always wait until the last minute,” Runyan told reporters. “We saw the train come over the horizon two weeks ago — two months ago. Now we're standing here in front of it, still on the rail.”
It's not only immigration. The list of major legislation Congress passed this year has only two entries: a bill to reorganize the Department of Veterans Affairs, and stopgap funding for the federal Highway Trust Fund.
“I have been here 7 1/2 years, and we have never yet solved a real problem that we have fiscally — not one,” fumed Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) “We haven't dealt with Medicare, we haven't dealt with Social Security, we haven't dealt with Medicaid.... We've done nothing but skate.”
A big part of the problem, of course, is that Congress is divided between the two parties, with Republicans running the House and Democrats running the Senate. Legislation that passes one body — the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill, for example — tends to die in the other.
But the deep division among Republicans has added another dimension to the gridlock. Boehner has endorsed the principle of majoritarian rule; he wants to pass bills with a majority of his GOP conference, without relying on help from Nancy Pelosi's Democrats. But when three dozen or more of his members refuse to take his lead, there's no majority in the chamber at all.
In the case of last week's border bill, for example, Boehner wanted to avoid insisting on undoing Obama's deferred deportation for “dreamers” brought here illegally when they were young. GOP moderates worried that such a demand would send a message of hostility to Latino voters. But tea party members made reversing the program a conservative litmus test; any bill that didn't include such a mandate, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) tweeted, would be a “crap chimichanga.”
What's the solution? Partisans on both sides, not surprisingly, say it would help to put both houses of Congress under the same party's management.
“If Republicans control the Senate, then [gridlock] isn't possible any more,” Corker argued at a breakfast organized by the Wall Street Journal. “Republicans will control the Congress — and Republicans will have to be responsible.”
But last week's events suggest that one-party control would solve only half the problem. For a GOP-led Congress to be productive, Republicans will still need to end their civil war.
Under these circumstances, perhaps it's a good thing that Congress is heading off for its five-week summer vacation — excuse me, “district work period.”