Speaker of the House John Boehner seems to be in need of a refresher course in how legislation is supposed to happen in the American system of government. Over the course of the past year, Boehner has gone from confidently touting his and his fellow House Republicans' upcoming leadership on the issue of immigration (and border security, in specific), to now doing nothing more than groveling for President Obama to solve the problem using his executive authority -- which is an ironic enough stance for a Republican to take, these days. The House is obviously incapable of action, Boehner is now all but admitting. That's a pretty stunning turnaround, politically.
Boehner was put on the spot last June, when the Senate forged a bipartisan compromise on an immigration reform bill. The bill passed with a whopping 68 votes in the Senate, largely due to last-minute "beef up the border" provisions demanded by Republicans. The Democrats agreed to the changes, which allowed for such wide bipartisan support. Once the Senate had acted, all eyes turned to the House.
Boehner had already (one month before the Senate voted) staked out the position of the House Republican leadership, stating in a joint press release (with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte) what the Republican priorities and plan of action would be:
While we applaud the progress made by our Senate colleagues, there are numerous ways in which the House will approach the issue differently. The House remains committed to fixing our broken immigration system, but we will not simply take up and accept the bill that is emerging in the Senate if it passes. Rather, through regular order, the House will work its will and produce its own legislation. Enacting policy as consequential and complex as immigration reform demands that both chambers of Congress engage in a robust debate and amendment process. Our nation's immigration processes, border security, and enforcement mechanisms remain dysfunctional. The House goal is enactment of legislation that actually solves these problems and restores faith in our immigration system, and we are committed to continuing the work we've begun toward that goal in the weeks and months ahead.
Boehner and the other Republican House leaders reaffirmed this in a statement released a few weeks after the Senate vote, on the same day they held a caucus meeting on the immigration reform issue:
Today House Republicans affirmed that rather than take up the flawed legislation rushed through the Senate, House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system. The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy. But they don't trust a Democratic-controlled Washington, and they're alarmed by the president's ongoing insistence on enacting a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill rather than pursuing a step-by-step, common-sense approach to actually fix the problem. The president has also demonstrated he is willing to unilaterally delay or ignore significant portions of laws he himself has signed, raising concerns among Americans that this administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate.
Boehner couldn't have been clearer. Big was bad. Small, targeted bills were the way to go. And it was no mystery which of these smaller bills would go first. The day before the above statement was released, Boehner was quoted in The Hill saying:
The House is going to do its own job on developing an immigration bill. But it's real clear, from everything that I've seen and read over the last couple of weeks, that the American people expect that we'll have strong border security in place before we begin the process of legalizing and fixing our legal immigration system.
This all made perfect sense, when considering the overall Republican stance on immigration reform. The Senate bill was "comprehensive," meaning it addressed as much of the problem as politically possible. This included a "path to citizenship" for the estimated 11 million already living in America. House Republicans were never going to vote for this -- it would have been a tough sell to even get them to have supported their significantly watered-down version (a "path to legal status" -- or, in other words, an eventual green card but never being able to vote). But there were certain aspects of the immigration problem that Republicans (it was felt, at the time) could agree upon. The biggest and easiest of these was border security -- which is why it was first on Boehner's list.
The Senate bill had strongly increased funding for border security, including provisions to double the number of Border Patrol agents, as well as build 700 more miles of border fence. This was all due to the Republican senators' last-minute push. But what the Republicans in the House wanted to do was to pass all the "tough on border security" measures as a single bill, without the distraction of all the things they really didn't want to even cast votes on.
If this had happened, it would have set up a more-balanced political argument. Democrats could continue to insist on passing comprehensive reform or nothing, while the House Republicans could insist that the border be made secure before they'd even vote on anything else. Any possibility of actually passing a bill through both houses would have been slim, but it could have remained an issue for both sides to score legitimate political points on the campaign trail this year.
That didn't happen. A few bills (including a border-control bill) did make it out of one House committee on party-line votes, but so far not a single one of them has made it to the House floor. Not one. Not even the one they promised would be first in line: border control.
So not only will Boehner not allow an up-or-down vote on the Senate's bipartisan bill, he cannot even allow a vote on an "enforcement-only" border-securing Republican bill. He has had all the time in the world -- it's now been over a year since the Senate voted. In all that time, Boehner has been silent on the issue. The Republican response to the State Of The Union speech in January attempted to claim Republicans had been working on things:
We're working on a step-by-step solution to immigration reform by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest, and hardest working from around the world.
But no vote on any of this ever happened. House Republicans have shown they are absolutely incapable of taking even the first step toward their own "step-by step solution." They can't even agree on how strongly they'd beef up the border. John Boehner can't even get a majority together from his own caucus for a bill which is composed solely of Republican ideas, with no Democratic input whatsoever.
Of course, it doesn't help Boehner when members of his own caucus make offensive comments to the media, as Steve King did almost a year ago. Boehner, while condemning King's "calves the size of cantaloupes" remarks, stated: "I'm going to continue to work with members who want to get to a solution, as opposed to those who want to do nothing." A year later, however, it's looking like those who wanted to do nothing had the upper hand all along.
A few weeks ago, Boehner tried to place all the blame for his own inaction and his own inability to lead the Republican House caucus -- even to vote only on border control -- on President Obama. What was laughable about this was his plea that Obama solve the problem by ignoring Congress and taking executive action. Boehner is so upset that Obama is doing other things on his own that he's threatening to sue the president, while at the same time he is writing to Obama:
In that vein, your administration should immediately deploy the National Guard to our southern border. The National Guard is uniquely qualified to respond to such humanitarian crises. They are able to help deal with both the needs of these children and families as well as relieve the border patrol [sic] to focus on their primary duty of securing our border.
A quick review of how we got to this point is in order. Obama worked with the Senate (both Democrats and Republicans) to craft a bipartisan immigration reform bill. The bill passed with 68 votes, including 14 Republicans. This bill would have added 700 miles of fence to the border and doubled the Border Patrol. If it had passed the House and been signed into law, the surge of money toward border security would already be underway right now. But Boehner blocked it, in favor of his own "step-by-step" approach. The first step of this approach was supposed to be a border control bill (one of which has actually made it out of one committee). Boehner has yet to even hold a floor vote, likely knowing it doesn't have enough Republican votes to pass. Republicans can't even agree on the one thing they're supposed to all be for: border security.
Now, rather than seeing Border Patrol agents surge to the border, Boehner is reduced to calling on President Obama to deploy the National Guard (who are not even legally able to arrest any illegal immigrants they see on the border, it bears mentioning). It's pretty clear where the problem is in Washington on immigration reform. After a whole year, Republicans have absolutely nothing to show for the House's efforts to get even a bill passed that they all were supposed to agree upon. If Boehner had been able to pass a border bill by now, then he'd be able to sing a different tune: "House Republicans have acted to secure the borders -- the Senate and Obama refuse to act." But he doesn't even have that political fig leaf available. Instead, he's reduced to begging Obama to fix the problem with executive action. No wonder he's so frustrated.
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