By 10:15 p.m. local time Friday night, the gavel was struck and the House Republican celebration over, the chamber silent after hours of backslapping, hugging and cries of “Have a happy August!” The House had passed two bills to address the border crisis and conservatives crowed that their leadership had finally heard them.
“From the time I’ve ever been here … I’ve never seen them as responsive to the, I would call them the ‘No votes,’” said Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), who calls himself “very, very conservative” but “not always categorically a ‘No.’”
“Right now it looks really good,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), of conservatives’ relationship with its leadership. “We’ve got a lot of very smart people in our conference and when you sit down and work with them and you unleash that talent you end up with a better product. And you end up with people who have ownership that want to promote it, rather than those that feel essentially asked to go along.”
When asked if that is a change from the past, King replied, “It feels like that now.”
On Thursday—the day House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stepped down from his post—House Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and House Whip Steve Scalise had to pull their original bill from the floor and regroup under a backlash from the right. Later that night, around 7 p.m. ET, Scalise and his chief deputy, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), called a meeting and went point by point through the legislation with around 20 “Hell No” members, according to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
“What I saw in the last 24 hours is nothing short of remarkable,” said Bachmann. “I couldn’t believe it. Leadership was like [point] one is reasonable, number two is reasonable. It gutted the bill, changed the bill.”
“In a very short time we saw everyone drop off their haunches and meld together on this issue,” Bachmann added. “Conservatives were willing to go home without a bill. So we needed the moderates to say, ‘We’re not going home.’ We needed the conservatives to say ‘This is what we need to make the bill better.’”
The leadership’s proposal, set to cost around $1.5 billion as of last week, shrank to $694 million by Friday morning in response to conservative spending complaints. On Thursday night, leadership tightened up language regarding the adjudication process for unaccompanied minors. Many Republicans argue that to fix the backlogged immigration courts, Border Patrol has to treat the thousands of unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador the same way it treats Mexican minors, who are more quickly screened and deported. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate oppose this policy change.
The leadership also granted conservatives a separate vote aimed at blocking an expected move by President Barack Obama to expand deportation relief to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The changes paid off and on Friday night, the border bill vote passed 223 to 189 with only four Republicans voting in opposition; the second vote passed 216 to 192 with 11 Republican noes. (Neither vote needed 218 to pass because 20, then 23 Congressmen didn’t vote.)
“I thought it was important the way that our entire team came together and said we’re not going to leave until we got our job done,” said Scalise after the votes. “I don’t think anybody would have predicted 223 votes in favor of this bill.”
Democrats saw the tally and steps to the right and argued that the hardline conservatives had taken over the new leadership—same as the old.
“They lost control of their own caucus again,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “It’s not new. That’s what has been going on for the last four years … this is the crowd that shut down the government against the wishes of leadership.”
Democrats also charged that the votes mattered more in a political sense than a practical one. The Senate won’t pick up the House bill; indeed members are now back home for a five-week recess, as the Senate left the Capitol after failing to pass its own $2.7 billion border proposal. Scalise’s whip operation showed that it could pass something with almost the full support of the House Republican conference, but it remains to be seen whether or not it can pass legislation that goes through the Senate and onto the President’s desk.
The shift to the right could also hurt Republicans’ image within the Hispanic community. According to Democrats and even some Republicans, the second vote, limiting the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program granting two years of deportation relief to qualifying illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as a minor, could resonate more deeply with the Hispanic community than the border bill.
On the House floor, Rep. Luis Guiterrez (D-Ill.) asked the Republicans, “Is there no one in your conference who can stand up and talk sensibly when others in your party want to demonize children at the border and deport the DREAMers?”
“You are so frozen in fear of your own voters—so frozen in fear of your own colleagues—and the nation needs you to be courageous,” Guiterrez added. “Only cowards scapegoat children, and only those who are ashamed of themselves do it after hours on a Friday night.”
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) acknowledged that DACA is popular, but says that the program, created through an Obama Administration executive order, has been “abused” and has helped incentivize child migrants to come to the U.S.
“We’ll see what happens with the DACA,” Stivers said. “It’s really a question of what kind of incentive it created for this crisis at the border … Hopefully folks will be understanding that there was a crisis that was created by incentives that were pushed a little too far by the Administration. We’re compassionate but at the same time, when something’s helping create a crisis and fuel a crisis, we have to figure out how to address it. And I think temporarily freezing it is the answer.”
With Congress at home, the Administration will be left to redirect funds within the budget to aid the cash-strapped Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Administration expects to apprehend as many as 90,000 unaccompanied minors by the end of September, an increase of more than threefold compared to last year.
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