Cruz-ifying the border debate: How Ted Cruz is yet again giving Boehner headaches

As the House unveils border legislation, Ted Cruz walks across the Capitol and urges conservatives to scuttle it

Published July 24, 2014 4:22PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Joe Mitchell)
(Reuters/Joe Mitchell)

The Cruzification of the border crisis legislation debate is nearly complete.

"Cruzification" is what happens when the House Republican leadership is prepared to make a relatively realistic opening offer to counter a Senate Democratic proposal, but then Sen. Ted Cruz (you guessed it!) perambulates over to the House side and demands that conservatives there rise up in defiance. Conference support for the opening offer collapses, the leadership is forced to introduce a more right-wing version, and stalemate endures. Most of the country ends up hating Ted Cruz, but his standing among far-right conservatives only increases.

The most famous example of Cruzification came during the shutdown debate last September. John Boehner and Eric Cantor were prepared to introduce a continuing resolution to fund the government through December. It included a provision to defund the Affordable Care Act, but was structured in a way that would have allowed Senate Democrats to strip that provision, pass the rest of the bill, and send it to the White House. Ted Cruz and his emissaries warned House conservatives of the ploy, support collapsed, and the bill was pulled. After that, Boehner was forced to go along with conservatives' plan to hold a firm defund-Obamacare line, and a government shutdown ensued.

Ted Cruz also snaked his way into the House GOP's psyche earlier this year after the House Republican leadership introduced its "principles" as an opening volley in the chamber's comprehensive immigration reform debate. Boehner introduced the principles at a retreat in late January, and initially, the plan had some support among House Republicans. Until Ted Cruz began blasting it.

House Republicans who supported the "principles" of immigration reform floated by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, late last month grumbled Tuesday that the plan was dead on arrival because Cruz blasted it as "amnesty," spurring a blizzard of negative phone calls to House Republicans.

"After that it was 'We'll get back to you on immigration reform,' " said one Republican congressman who declined to be identified. [...]

Privately, some Republicans decried Cruz's indirect intervention in House deliberations with what they viewed as ill-timed remarks that provoked the telephone calling barrage.

Any hopes for immigration reform legislation coming out of the House essentially died as soon as Ted Cruz and Co. made the principles taboo. Indeed, it was Eric Cantor's support for those principles that seeded the fatal anti-immigration reform backlash against the House majority leader.

Which brings us to yesterday's action. A House working group led by Rep. Kay Granger unveiled its legislation to address the border crisis, with only a week-and-a-half left to get something done before Congress adjourns for the August recess. The bill only allots $1.5 billion in spending to address the issue -- well below President Obama's asking price and Senate Democrats' $2.7 billion proposal -- but hey, it's a marker from which to begin negotiations.

But guess who was holding court with House conservatives just an hour before the unveiling, over a Chick-fil-A breakfast?

Cruz was "urging House Republicans to reject legislation addressing the border crisis, arguing that passing a bill through the lower chamber would play into the hands of Senate Democrats," according to The Hill. His argument was that once the House passed a version of the Granger bill, "Senate Democrats were likely to gut it and use it as a vehicle to pass other immigration legislation." Rep. Steve King backed Cruz up, explaining that conservatives like Cruz are "well aware of what happens if you send something over to the Senate and Gang of Eight language gets attached to it." As in, don't let the Senate corner the House into bringing up a vote that might include "amnesty." This is slightly paranoid.

Cruz offered an alternative. He "touted his immigration bill that would defund Obama’s efforts to defer deportations of illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age. That legislation, Cruz said, is the only answer to the border crisis."

If Cruz has his way, the House leadership will soon find itself lacking the votes to pass a negotiable Granger framework and will be forced to take up Cruz's more conservative plan to only pass legislation defunding DACA. Then you'd have a stalemate. Democrats would be able to credibly blame Republicans for the legislative failure by pursuing an extreme solution with zero bipartisan support. The White House would find itself out of a tough political spot regarding changes to the 2008 law granting extra protections to Central American child migrants, over which its messaging has been at odds with that of congressional Democrats. Ted Cruz would once again be the face of the Republican Party -- something that's great for Ted Cruz, and Ted Cruz alone.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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