Harry Reid trolls Ted Cruz, Tea Party: Can he spook House Republicans out of passing a bill?

The Senate majority leader is feeding Republicans' worst fears about passing a border bill

Published July 30, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

If the gamesmanship over legislation to address the migrant situation on the border before Congress' August recess was already confusing, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid upped it yesterday with a little move that one may call the Master Immigration Troll. (Or something more creative.) The point is, he played a trick yesterday that had little practical sense -- other than to get in House Republicans' heads.

The House is preparing to vote on a border bill later this week in the new GOP leadership's first big test. The final package they've arrived at has been pared down to $659 million -- well less than the $3.7 billion the White House first requested, the $2.7 the Senate hopes to advance, the $1.5 billion the original House working group originally proposed, and the $1 billion the House was working toward at the end of the last week. The new, narrow House bill will focus on border security and changing the 2008 law that grants extra legal protections to Central American migrants fleeing violence and human trafficking.

That the number on the House supplemental has plunged all the way down to $659 million indicates that the House leadership is already making concessions to keep the conference together on this one. Since House Democrats will be offering few, if any, votes for the legislation, the GOP can't afford many defections. The combination of a lower-priced, tougher-edged bill, along with a rather late-game desire among the GOP to "show it can govern" ahead of the midterms, may be just enough for the leadership to move the package through.

This is where Reid comes into play. The Senate's own supplemental appears unlikely to garner enough support to reach the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster. It wouldn't look good for Reid and the Democrats heading into the recess for the House to have passed a border bill while the Senate hasn't.

So what's Reid's best, if most devious, option? Feed prominent conservative conspiracies in hopes of breaking down House GOP support for the leadership's bill. And that means slyly (or, well, overtly) suggesting that if the House passes its bill, Reid can use it as a vaguely immigration-related vehicle with which to conference with the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed last year. That's right: We're talking about the dreaded Secret Amnesty.

From Politico:

If House Republicans pass a pared-down funding bill for the border crisis, Senate Democrats are warning they may try to attach the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration reform bill to the package.

The complicated calculus reflects the fact that the Senate’s own $3.57 billion border supplemental legislation appears unlikely to clear a procedural vote on Wednesday. So if the House is able to pass its $659 million package later this week, Senate Democrats may press to attach their sweeping 2013 immigration reform bill to the House’s legislation.

“If they pass that, maybe it’s an opening for us to have a conference on our comprehensive immigration reform, if they’re finally sending us something on immigration,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters.

Though no one will admit it, the move from Senate Democrats is also clearly an attempt to derail the House Republican border-crisis package released earlier Tuesday. House Republican leadership will need every GOP vote to pass the legislation when it comes up for a vote on Thursday, and Democrats dangling the prospect of conference on the Gang of Eight bill feeds into fears from House GOP hardliners that any bill dealing with the border crisis could evolve into immigration legislation that they abhor.

Reid's suggestion, that the House's passing a piece of legislation even barely related to immigration will give pro-immigration advocates an avenue through which to conference comprehensive immigration reform and "amnesty," is precisely what hard-liners like Ted Cruz and Steve King warned about last week when they urged House conservatives not to support a supplemental. And it remains just as unlikely a scenario, despite Reid's posturing. Pro-CIR Senate Republicans, like the ones who drafted the Gang of Eight bill, have explicitly stated that they won't go along with plans to link CIR language to this targeted border legislation, so Reid's move would be blocked. Even if an amended version did make it through the Senate, Boehner would not pick it up. Boehner's team, worried about losing votes, put out a statement instantly after Reid's comments, saying essentially that.

Realistically, House Republicans don't need to worry that a vote on their border bill this week will end up authorizing mass amnesty. But immigration hawks only dabble with reality. And, if Reid's comments work as they're intended to, House Republicans will be getting thousands of phone calls from anti-immigration die-hards for the next two days, telling them not to trust Senate Republicans and Speaker Boehner, who love amnesty and will lie as much as they can to pass it.

All of which goes to say that there should be an interesting vote in the House this week!

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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