House border bill implodes, and Ted Cruz stands amid wreckage

House Republican leaders had to scrap their plans to pass a border bill Thursday when a wing of the party revolted. Some Republicans say Sen. Ted Cruz is interfering.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio leaves a closed-door Republican strategy session on the immigration crisis at the US-Mexico border after last-minute maneuvering failed to lock down conservative support at the Capitol in Washington Thursday.

On Thursday, the House GOP imploded over its border bill to solve the child-migrant crisis, pulling the legislation from the floor for lack of votes. And there, standing among the legislative wreckage, stood the proud senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.

Not literally, of course.

But the tea party Texan is once again smack in the middle of a House Republican debacle. With a reach as wide as his state, the freshman senator has his arm around conservative House Republicans. He has been lobbying them over Chick-fil-A and pizza to change the House bill “to end Obama’s amnesty.” By that he means President Obama’s 2012 executive action to defer deportation for certain children of undocumented immigrants.

Senator Cruz believes that the deferment sent the signal to children in Central America that the door is open, sparking the influx of child migrants that prompted Mr. Obama to ask Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding. The problem can't be fixed until that amnesty ends, he says.

To satisfy Cruz-ers, the House planned a separate vote Thursday on a second bill that prohibits the federal government from deferring deportation of certain undocumented immigrants.

But that effort apparently did not go far enough for some, and the whole Republican plan to address the child-migrant crisis in the House came crashing down on what was supposed to be the last day before summer recess. 

Many Republicans, who had wanted to be able to go home and tell constituents they were doing something to solve the problem were, to put it mildly, angered at the unexpected collapse – and steamed at Cruz and another Republican senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, for interfering with House business.

“It’s kind of shocking to me that some people are willing to turn their voting cards over to the Senate,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R) of California to a tight scrum of reporters after both bills were pulled. He blamed what he called “the exotic club” – a group of legislators who “just don’t want to vote for anything,” and who he said care more about their scorecards with outside conservative groups than with governing.

“The Senate doesn’t tell me how to vote,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R) of Alabama, who had planned to vote for the GOP border bill, which would have provided $659 million in funding for the crisis (slimmed down from $1.5 billion to meet conservative critics), sent national guard troops to the border, and changed the law to allow for faster deportation of the child migrants.

“Ted Cruz hasn’t sent us a bill … and Jeff [Sessions] hasn’t sent us a bill. The only bill we have is our bill,” said Congressman Bachus. “We don’t have a unicameral Congress. Our forefathers had two bodies, and they had that for a reason.”

But the distinction seems lost on Cruz, who last year urged House Republicans to shut down the government in a high-stakes bid to defund the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The shutdown made him a hero among tea-party Republicans, but sent the approval rating of Republicans in Congress into a nosedive.

“During his short tenure in office, Cruz has demonstrated an exceptional capacity to block legislation he opposes, even when there exists a theoretical majority coalition in favor of passing that legislation in Congress,” says Professor Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, in an e-mail.

Some Republican House members who met with Cruz on Wednesday – and who oppose the GOP bills as written – deny he’s orchestrating things. They described their get-together over pizza and Dr. Pepper (three kinds) as a social gathering in which the senator didn’t say much. In an interview with The Washington Post, Cruz denied that he was working against the House bill and said that he was simply sharing his views with fellow conservatives, with whom he meets periodically.

Whether he directly caused Thursday’s implosion or not is almost beside the point. He’s a larger-than-life presence in both the Senate and the House, proudly bucking convention as he contemplates a run for the presidency in 2016. 

“Ted Cruz is as much of an expression of where conservatives are as he is a change agent,” says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “He has a very high visibility and he’s inserting himself in this process, but I think it’s as much because he has a very intelligent read of what the situation is, rather than being the origin of it.”

House Republicans will meet Friday morning to figure out next steps. The leadership hopes to bridge differences with those among their ranks who oppose their plan. They have a tall order to fill, and a larger-than-life senator to contend with.

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