House passes border bill, Senate doesn't. So why does House get the blame?

All the attention this week was on House Republicans' stuttering – but ultimately successful – attempts to pass a bill to address the border crisis. Yet the Senate failed to pass anything. 

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio walks to the House chamber during a procedural vote at the Capitol in Washington Friday.

The story line sounds familiar: A big vote is scheduled on a bill to address the tens of thousands of migrant kids crossing the border, elements of the conservative wing of the party pull their support, and the bill fails.

This is what happened Thursday when the House border bill imploded, leading to high-decibel headlines in newspapers across the country (including this one). Yet it is also what happened in the Senate Thursday, when the bill by Sen. Barbara Mikuski (D) of Maryland bill failed to clear a procedural hurdle and died.

The Senate then promptly went on vacation, leaving its business unfinished, while the House reconvened Friday and passed tweaked versions of its bills. Yet even this was treated with thinly veiled disdain from much of the press: "House GOP passes border bill – likely to no effect" pronounced CNN.

Is there a media double standard here? Does the Republican-led House get all the stick while the Democrat-led Senate gets off scot-free?

On one hand, there does appear to be a prevailing narrative that focuses more on the House's dysfunctions than on the Senate's. Just take the CNN headline. True, the House bill is likely to be "to no effect" because the Senate, even when it reconvenes, will not pass it, and the White House (rather perfunctorily) has already said it will veto the bill (which will never make it to the president's desk anyway).

But would CNN have written the same headline had the Senate passed its bill? That bill, too, would likely not have passed the House, making its passage "likely to no effect."

Andrew Stiles of the right-leaning National Review sees a double standard. When the House passes a bill and Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada ignores it, the "legislation is readily dismissed as 'dead on arrival,' " he writes. By contrast, when the Senate passes a bill, the story line "tends to focus on House speaker John Boehner 'facing pressure' to hold a vote in the House."

Yet there are reasons for the apparent double standard that also go well beyond a perceived liberal bias. The House and the Senate are dysfunctional for different reasons, and in many ways, the problems besetting the House are far more gripping.

That was abundantly apparent this week.

The failure of the Senate bill was, in many respects, politics as usual. Majority leader Reid has to round up 60 "yes" votes to avoid a filibuster, which is virtually impossible in a chamber where Democrats and their allies (two independents) have 55 of the 100 seats. On Thursday, he couldn't manage it, and he knew it, so he let two Democrats from conservative states defect to the Republican side so they could avoid sticky questions back home. The procedural vote fell 10 votes short, 50 to 44.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

The House, however, was another matter entirely. While Reid was able to hold his caucus together, Mr. Boehner completely lost his – and not for the first time. Though he was able to smooth things over the next day, the damage was done. To actually schedule a vote (as House Republicans did Thursday) and then to withdraw it (as House Republicans did Thursday) is "Three Stooges" politics. It just isn't done. In the inside-the-Beltway world of political protocol, it is the equivalent of getting the bride's name wrong in a best man's toast.

This is not politics as usual. Yet this is not the first time this has happened to Boehner's leadership team since it took power after the tea party revolution of 2010.

Whether it has been the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011, the government shutdown of 2013, or Thursday's border bill, the House Republican caucus has come across as a fractious political coalition constantly on the verge of collapse. Were this India or Germany, where parliamentary governments are run by cobbled-together coalitions of many parties, this might not seem so odd. But in America's two-party system, it is a rare and peculiar thing.

In the past, the Reform Party or the Bull Moose Party actually splintered from the Republican Party to live their life-cycle. Today, the Republican Party is trying to keep the insurgency in house, and the results have been combustible.

In truth, the Senate does have its own problems. On Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona railed against them:

Now we have a humanitarian crisis on our border, a humanitarian crisis of incredible proportion, where thousands of young people while they're being transported by the coyotes, young women are being raped, they're falling off trains, terrible things are happening. And what are we presented here in the the United States Senate? I say shame on you. I say shame on you for not allowing those of us who represent the states that are most affected by this to have an amendment, an amendment voted on. That is unbelievable to me.

His complaint is that Reid did not allow senators to make amendments to the border bill. In the past, this has been a key feature of how the Senate works: bills were massaged into their final form by a variety of amendments. Now, Reid is increasingly introducing bills and essentially telling senators: "Take it or leave it, but you can't change it," as he did Thursday.

This, too, is a slap in the face by the measure of inside-the-Beltway political protocol, but the narrative here is more muddied.

Republicans, after all, have been complicit by increasingly using amendments as way of poisoning a bill, not improving it. For example, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky used a bill about unemployment insurance earlier this year to propose an amendment that would have delayed the Obamacare individual mandate for a year.

The Business Insider wrote at the time:

[Reid] knows that delaying the mandate would be a very tough vote for red state Democrats, many of whom are up for reelection this year. It would draw extra attention to the law at a time when Obamacare has fallen off the front page – something most Democrats want to keep going. And it was unlikely to be in the final bill.

McConnell knew this as well, but also knew that for Reid to ensure that it didn't receive a vote, he would have to shut down the entire amendment process, which would provide Republicans another opportunity to complain about the Majority Leader's authoritarian leadership.

It was all a political game.

In short, the problems besetting the Senate are inside baseball and both sides are at fault. What is going on in the House, however, is a rare piece of political theater in which one party is at war with itself.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.