Dysfunctional Congress Sprints to Chaotic Finish
A Congress known for its dysfunction and acrimony may be on the verge of a rare triple combo — passing major bills addressing the border crisis, the Veterans Affairs scandal and the Highway Trust Fund in one week. But if it happens, it’s going to be like the rest of the 113th: ugly.
The pre-August sprint got off on the right foot with the announcement Monday of a $17 billion deal to slash wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs, followed Tuesday by the 97-0 confirmation of former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new Veterans Affairs secretary.
A highway patch seemed likely too, although not without last-minute wrangling between the two chambers over the fine print.
House Republican leaders formally introduced their $659 million border bill Tuesday — a fraction of the $3.7 billion President Barack Obama initially sought to deal with the child migrant crisis. They left out $615 million Obama included for wildfires and another $225 million for Israel’s Iron Dome system, and they added controversial changes to a 2008 human trafficking law that Democrats don’t support.
They say the plan is to pass the bill Thursday, just as Congress intends to adjourn for the five-week summer recess.
But Boehner acknowledged that Republicans had “a little more work to do” to secure the votes.
And the speaker’s job didn’t get any easier after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested Tuesday he could use the bill as a vehicle to attach a broader immigration overhaul.
“Maybe it’s an opening for us to have a conference on our comprehensive immigration reform because they’re finally sending us something on immigration,” Reid told reporters. “I am not threatening anything, but we have been looking for something to do a conference on. Maybe we could do it with that.”
That bit of mischief had Boehner blasting out an angry statement torching Reid and vowing that no “immigration reform” — comprehensive or otherwise — would be tacked onto the bill.
But the immigration gambit seemed to send shivers down the backs of some Republicans, who were already showing reservations about any border legislation.
“That’d be scary,” Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida said of the prospect of Senate Democrats attaching immigration policy to the spending measure. “Those people in the Senate are pretty crafty.”
“Why would we set ourselves up for this?” asked Rep. Steve King of Iowa.
Reid’s suggestion is merely talk. Several Senate Republicans who backed the comprehensive immigration overhaul bill last year are already on record saying they wouldn’t back such a move, noted Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who called Reid’s chatter “phony.”
But the back-and-forth could make it more likely Boehner will need Democratic votes to pass a bill.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., told CQ Roll Call that roughly 20 Republicans stood up to express reservations about the bill during a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning — a dangerously high number.
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., predicted Tuesday there probably would be some support from his party for the border bill, but cautioned Republicans will be “throwing dice” if they are counting on Democratic votes. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the GOP plan “unjust and inhumane.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat from Texas, has been in close communication with Republicans about how many members on his side of the aisle would vote for the package, despite controversial policy riders such as the changes to the 2008 human trafficking law.
“I’ve basically told them, ‘I’ve got X number of votes,’” Cuellar said Monday night. “I don’t know what their goal is.”
Aside from Cuellar, the rest of the Democrat-only Congressional Hispanic Caucus is campaigning hard against the measure as it stands.
“We will vote against it,” CHC member Nydia M. Velázquez of New York said Tuesday afternoon, predicting Republicans “will not have the votes to pass it.”
The White House ripped the package as insufficient and unworkable — particularly a requirement that child migrants get judicial reviews of their status within seven days. Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted that the White House wants more flexibility, not less, in implementing the 2008 law. But he stopped short of issuing a veto threat.
Senate Democrats are pushing a $3.6 billion spending measure, but don’t yet have all of their own members on board, let alone the 60 votes needed to advance such a plan.
Reid sounded increasingly likely to separate immigration matters from the other funding Obama requested.
“I want to get the supplemental appropriation bill done, but I just wanted to remind everyone it’s in three parts: wildfires, of course Iron Dome and the border problem. So . . . I hope all of them could get done. That’s my goal. If not, we’ll have to look at different alternatives,” Reid said.
Asked if it was irresponsible to leave for recess without finishing the border supplemental, Reid first focused on fires “burning all over the West.”
“The House is talking about passing something that doesn’t even mention wildfires. Not, not 10 cents toward these wildfires,” Reid said. “We had a fire burning in Washington . . . more than two weeks. Sen. [Patty] Murray said it’s three or four times the size of the metropolitan Seattle area.”
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona were among those pushing hard for a separate Iron Dome supplemental.
“It’s a life-or-death struggle Israel faces, and I just hope we’ll rise to the occasion,” Graham said. “As a stand-alone proposition, it’d pass in five minutes.”
Amid all the wrangling, lawmakers in both parties reflected on the potential for a pre-recess burst of productivity.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., pointed to Republicans not wanting to go into the break having accomplished nothing.
“They’d rather not have that on their watch. They’d like to go into November with the suggestion that they’re positive, constructive and can solve problems,” Durbin said. “So, we have a burst of bipartisanship here in the closing week. If it sounds cynical, maybe it is.”
McCain, who had pushed hard for a VA deal, said he was glad to see that some things could still be passed despite the toxic partisan atmosphere: ”Even a blind hog unearths an acorn every once in a while.”
Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.
Correction 7:39 p.m.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Nydia M. Velázquez’s name.