Immigration boiled over last week. Here’s what Congress did — and why.

Jun 25 '18
Immigrants line up outside a bus station in McAllen, Tex., after they were processed and released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on  June 24. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Congress grappled with immigration last week as President Trump’s actions boiled over into a border crisis. Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy separated at least 2,500 children from their migrant parents seeking entry into the United States.

Trump’s actions have been fairly well reported. He demanded that Congress fix the crisis, then grudgingly issued an order ending family separations at the border. By week’s end, Trump washed his hands of the legislative efforts when he tweeted that his party should stop wasting its time until voters elect more Republicans to Congress in November.

Congress tried to act nonetheless. Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) allowed members to vote on a far-right immigration measure known as the Goodlatte bill, which the House then rejected. The measure would have cut legal immigration and bolstered border security while offering no path to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, the young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents.

Ryan and House GOP leaders then deferred action on a compromise measure until conservatives could be brought on board. The compromise would fund the president’s border wall, provide a route to citizenship for DACA recipients and keep migrant families together when they are stopped at the border.

Here are three takeaways from what happened on Capitol Hill last week.

The GOP is deeply divided — on immigration, in particular

The nation’s immigration laws are very important to Trump and his party base. But since their party took control of the House in the 2010 elections, GOP leaders have resisted pressure to consider immigration bills on the House floor. That’s because rank-and-file GOP lawmakers hold clashing views on immigration. To maintain their House majority in the 2018 midterms, Republicans will need to win seats in more moderate suburban districts, where voters are less likely to support building a border wall or separating families — while still holding on to base voters who don’t want to see DACA renewed. That’s why House GOP leaders would rather campaign on the booming economy than defend their actions on ideologically divisive issues such as immigration.

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So why did the House finally vote on an immigration bill last week?

Two situations collided to push Ryan into action. First was the acute crisis at the border last week, which brought unwelcome media attention and opposition from outside and inside the party. Second, both moderate and conservative GOP factions have for months been pressuring GOP leaders to allow floor votes on immigration. The combination proved irresistible.

What pressure, you ask? First, last month, the conservative Freedom Caucus refused to vote to renew farm programs until Ryan brought up the Goodlatte immigration bill for a vote. Lawmakers consider the farm bill “must-pass” because it offers a safety net for millions of farmers. Majority leaders couldn’t rely on Democrats to help pass the measure, since the Republican bill slashes food programs for the poor. So leaders gave in and agreed to bring the Goodlatte bill to the floor. After it failed, the House narrowly passed the farm bill.

Meanwhile, moderates had gathered signatures for a “discharge petition,” which would have forced leaders to allow a floor vote on renewing DACA. Petition signers were mostly GOP centrists and members facing competitive races who wanted to be able to tell voters they had done something on behalf of the highly popular “dreamers” brought here as children. Moderates needed two more GOP signatures and the House would have to vote on competing immigration proposals — including two bills that moderate Republicans and Democrats would probably pass over most Republicans’ objections.

But the moderates leading the discharge-petition drive caved when leaders promised a vote on a moderate alternative to the Goodlatte bill. Trump’s tweet that voting on the bill would be a waste of time complicated those negotiations.

The president kept up his pattern — creating crises and then blaming Congress for failing to solve them

Unable to bridge his divided party’s disagreements, Trump repeatedly makes bad situations worse. He creates crises, demands that Congress solve them and then blames lawmakers when they fail to act.

For instance, last year, Trump ordered an end to DACA on the grounds that President Barack Obama hadn’t had the executive authority to create the program — and in response to an outcry, demanded that Congress come up with a solution, which only highlighted his party’s divisions over immigration. Later that fall, Trump canceled health-care subsidies intended to help low-income Americans, demanding again that Congress take action if it wanted the subsidies revived — something lawmakers failed to do.

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Last week’s border crisis followed this pattern. But this time, the policy was so divisive and unpopular that even stalwart Republican supporters — from the Chamber of Commerce to evangelist Franklin Graham — urged the president to reverse his stance. When Trump folded, he returned to blaming Democrats for the impasse. Trump has mastered both ducking blame and foisting it on others.

House Republicans have a leadership crisis

Republican leaders in both chambers — like Democrats before them — can’t agree on what to do about immigration.

These and similar internal party disagreements mean that the GOP conference is all but ungovernable. Since Republicans took control of the House in 1994, the House GOP has elected five speakers, with an average tenure of just five years. In contrast, just two Democrats — Richard Gephardt and Nancy Pelosi — have led their party in the House over that same time.

Ryan is only the latest GOP speaker who has given up the gavel prematurely. Ryan’s predecessor, John A. Boehner of Ohio, used his impending retirement to forge agreements with Democrats that allowed him to “clean out the barn” of deadlocked issues. In contrast, Ryan — beholden to a president with little fealty to GOP leaders — seems unwilling to exploit his impending departure to resolve legislative impasses.

The result is a week like the one that just passed. Many Republicans broke with Trump against separating families at the border. But the speaker kept trying unsuccessfully to forge a solution only among Republicans, without allowing Democrats to have a say.

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All that said, the Republican House ended a tumultuous week on a bipartisan note, adopting an ambitious package of measures to combat the opioid crisis.

But there’s a problem for Republicans: Hardly anyone noticed.