WASHINGTON — Members of Congress had three items on their to-do list before leaving on a five-week recess this weekend.
First, they set out to approve a deal reforming the Veterans Affairs Administration. Then, they needed to keep federal highway projects funded. Finally, they wanted to pass a bill providing some type of short-term solution to the surge of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Well, two out of three isn’t bad.
House GOP leadership had planned on passing a $659 million border bill on Thursday night before breaking for the recess, but they pulled it off the floor after conservatives objected. The caucus huddled later in the afternoon and Friday morning to discuss the bill’s path forward.
So the House is still in session and will try tweaking the bill and voting again before skipping town. But the GOP’s establishment members had clearly hoped it wouldn’t get to this point.
Take, for example, Minnesota Rep. John Kline, who predicted on Tuesday that the GOP was “going to do something about the crisis at the border.” Or Rep. Erik Paulsen, who said the House had “thankfully” crafted a plan to deal with the crisis.
“Thankfully, we’ve got a plan put together, where we’ll have support, and it’s really critical to act on that,” he said then.
It’s important to note that even if the House finds a way to pass it, the GOP’s bill isn’t going to become law — the Senate has already left for its recess, and the White House threatened to veto the bill anyway. But it’s an opportunity for the GOP to claim the high ground with voters while in their districts in August. Obama’s border proposal hasn’t gone anywhere, and Senate Democrats tried and failed to lift theirs over procedural hurdles last night. So House Republicans, assuming they can pass their bill, would be able to point to it and say: we passed something to alleviate this border crisis and nobody else has.
But conservatives said the bill — which would beef up border security measures though the end of September and make it easier to send children who have crossed the border back to their home countries — doesn’t go far enough toward stemming the tide of unaccompanied Central American children entering the United States.
“I’m very disappointed with the bill Republicans are bringing up because it’s $659 million to be split between Eric Holder and Sylvia Burwell,” Rep. Michele Bachmann said, referencing the Attorney General and secretary of Health and Human Services. “They are expediting asylum, they are making asylum more efficient and quicker for illegal foreign nationals who are coming into the country. … The taxpayer loses over and over and over again, and no one will be deported. So I’m a ‘hell no’ on this vote.”
Democrats don’t offer any help
It’s certainly not unheard of for the very vigorous conservative faction of the GOP conference to sink bills leadership would rather they support. They most famously did so last summer when the House voted down an early version of the farm bill, and, more recently, the caucus couldn’t coalesce around leadership’s plan to try attaching some type of Republican legislative priority to a debt limit hike in February.
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Speaker John Boehner has, on at least six occasions this session, spurned the majority of his caucus and asked Democrats to provide the bulk of the votes needed to pass important legislation. But Democrats as a whole weren’t about to get behind the border package: it’s far smaller than either the White House or Senate Democrats wanted, and it included deportation provisions their base opposes.
So Boehner, caught between his angry conservative flank and Democrats’ refusal to throw him a lifeline, simply didn’t have the votes to pass his bill on Thursday. And so Democrats crowed that, just a day after his caucus voted to sue President Obama for too often acting on his own, Boehner released a statement encouraging him to do just that:
“There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action, to secure our borders and ensure these children are returned swiftly and safely to their countries,” he said.
VA, highway bills pass
But the week wasn’t a total loss.
The House’s highway bill, meant to keep federal highway projects funded through next May while lawmakers ostensibly work out a longer-term solution, is on its way to the president to be signed into law.
And Congress did pass its Veterans Affairs bill, a package meant to relieve VA hospital wait times. The bill passed overwhelmingly — 420-5 in the House and 91-3 in the Senate — providing at least one big, bipartisan reform bill for lawmakers of both parties to tout at home.
“I guess in this Congress, considering how things could have been, if we can get this veterans bill moved out of here, that’s probably the best we can hope for,” Rep. Tim Walz said.
“Today the Senate voted to send a bipartisan bill to improve care for veterans as well as legislation shoring up the Highway Trust Fund to the President’s desk, and we need to continue this bipartisan cooperation and take action on other critical issues,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a statement.
Who’s to blame?
Much has been made about how little Congress has done this session — it’s on pace to pass the fewest laws of any Congress in modern history — and both parties have found ways to blame the other for intransigence. Rep. Keith Ellison said Tuesday that the House should consider taking up legislation important to Democrats, like an extension of lapsed unemployment benefits, a minimum wage hike or a Senate-passed immigration reform bill. For their part, Kline and Paulsen both offered the same statistic: that the House has passed more than 300 bills awaiting action in the Senate.
“There are now more than 350 bills that the House has passed that are sitting on [Majority Leader] Harry Reid’s desk in the Senate, metaphorically speaking,” Kline said. “And my constituents and others don’t understand, why is that? Well, you almost have to ask Harry Reid, you’ve got to stop protecting your members and bring some things up on the floor of the Senate and let them vote.”
A busy September
The agenda doesn’t get any lighter once members return to Washington in September. For one, they have to decide what to do with the federally funded Export-Import Bank, which expires at the end of the month, and they’ll likely have to pass a short-term budget before an Oct. 1 deadline as well — all before leaving on another lengthy pre-election recess.
“The workload is constant here,” Paulsen said. “It just seems that, unfortunately, Congress acts on deadlines, so as deadlines approach it just stresses urgency.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry