House GOP's sudden attempt to "show it can govern": Are you kidding?

Boehner's conference feels passing a partisan border bill will "show it can govern." How our standards have fallen

Published July 28, 2014 4:18PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                    (Reuters/Larry Downing)
John Boehner (Reuters/Larry Downing)

Welcome, dear reader, to the last 3.5-day week of hot congressional action before our citizen-legislators, like all Americans(?), go on a richly deserved five-week vacation through Labor Day. There are some big votes ahead in the House majority's pipeline: a post office naming, the conferring of honorary citizenship on "Bernardo de Galvez y Madrid, Viscount of Galveston and Count of Galvez," who died hundreds of years ago, the "Sunscreen Innovation Act," and more.

But the main event for the House Republican leadership, of course, will be passing some sort of legislative package to address the child migrant situation on the border. The most recent word, coming out of a Friday House GOP conference meeting, suggests that the leadership is homing in on a package of less that $1 billion -- pared down from $1.5 billion, still less than Senate Democrats' $2.7 billion, and much less than the White House's initial $3.8 billion request. And in order to entice "more conservative members," the leadership may also offer a stand-alone vote on a bill to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Obama's program to ease deportations of undocumented immigrants under the age of 31 who arrived in the country before 2007. The end-DACA plan is Sen. Ted Cruz's brainchild and, were it up to him, it would be the only piece of legislation that moves out of the House.

Speaker John Boehner and his fresh new leadership team, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise, are hoping to pass some version of the <$1 billion legislation before the big vacay. Since only a handful of House Democrats, at most, would be willing to vote for GOP's plan, the leadership can afford fewer than 20 defections from its side.

And yet there's a rare optimistic outlook among House Republicans about the bill's chances, according to reports. This happy talk could be ... a lie. But if not, and the leadership does manage to keep the team together and move something through, it will be due to the presence of a shared political sensibility: the desire to show ahead of midterms that the GOP "can govern," with this border bill and a veterans' healthcare bill to serve as evidence. The Hill reports:

House Republicans want to use their final week in Washington before the August recess to send a signal that they are ready to govern.

As the country’s attention turns to the fight for control of the House and Senate, Republicans want to show they are capable of handling two of the nation’s toughest issues: the thousands of children crossing the border, and the veterans in need of healthcare.

“This is a crisis situation. We need to show that we can respond in a crisis in a thoughtful way,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said of the effort to move a border bill.

“It’s time to resolve this crisis. We’ve got to show some leadership to actually get it done,” Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said of the impasse to reform the Veterans Affairs Department."

Politico, too, reports on how GOPers see the border bill as an opportunity to "set the narrative for the August recess," the "narrative" apparently being that House Republicans are a competent body of adults who can pass any piece of legislation on high-profile issues. "They will either go home having passed a bill to deal with the unaccompanied children coming primarily from Central America — and spend August talking about how Democrats didn’t help," Politico writes. "Or they will fail, giving way to renewed criticism about their inability to rally around legislation to resolve what they themselves called a crisis."

This effort of narrative-setting is among the more hysterically cynical attempts to erase recent history from the public memory.

Consider, for starters, what the House Republicans' other high-profile move will be this week: approving a lawsuit against President Obama. And it was only about a month ago that Boehner officially nixed consideration of comprehensive immigration reform. Other significant pieces of legislation this year, like the highway bill or the farm bill, are still either unresolved or took extraordinary efforts to pass. And then, looking juuuuust a little bit further back in this Congress's record, we had a government shutdown and another near-breach of the debt ceiling over the ludicrous House GOP demand that Senate Democrats pass and Obama sign a defunding of the Affordable Care Act.

But now House Republicans want to show they can govern!

It's audacious enough for Boehner and company to think that anything they do, at this point, will show that they "can govern." What's worse is how low they've set the bar for effective governance with regards to their action on this border bill. Their goal for the week isn't to reach a compromise with Senate Democrats and get a border bill to the president's desk by week's end. It's simply to pass a piece of legislation out of the House. It's unclear what would happen with that after Labor Day. Typically, when the House and Senate have passed competing versions of legislation addressing the same issue, legislators from the two chambers go to conference to mesh together a final bill. (The Senate bill, by the way, isn't a sure thing either, as it likely will have to surmount another Republican filibuster.) But since a not-insignificant number of conservatives believe that any conference pertaining to the border would end with Democrats adding Secret Amnesty to the conference report, it's hard to see Boehner naming conferees. So this is really all the GOP means when it says it wants to show it "can govern": It wants to pass another piece of go-nowhere partisan legislation.

This would be quite a sell.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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