"Speaker Cruz" Tanks John Boehner's Border Security Bill (Updated)

Amid tea party-driven chaos, the House Speaker first fails to pass his own legislation—and then wins with a more extreme bill.

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 4:13 PM EDT

Update, August 1, 9:57 p.m. EST: Surprise! A day after House Republicans fell into dysfunctional mayhem, they rallied to pass a supplemental spending bill that devotes $694 million to border security measures. The House approved the bill 223-189, with one Democrat voting in favor and four Republicans voting nay. It was a face-saving measure after House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday pulled the original bill right before it was supposed to receive a vote. But this supposed GOP victory is mostly a meaningless gesture. The Senate has already left town for the August recess, and the upper chamber likely wouldn't have approved the House's border bill anyway, with Democrats claiming it doesn't offer enough additional funds and contains harsh provisions easing the deportation of children.

Boehner managed to win back the tea party wing of his party by pairing the spending bill with a stricter measure rolling back President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an executive order that granted two-year waivers to 580,000 so-called DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the US. The anti-DACA bill—which passed by a 216-192 vote later Friday night—would bar the Obama administration from offering new DACA waivers or renewing current DACA beneficiaries when their two years are up. This bill was a show vote, for the Senate and Obama would never go along with it. But this was the GOP message of the day: in order to win the support of tea party Republicans for a bill with spending to ease the humanitarian crisis underway at the border, Boehner had to give these conservatives a vote to toss out the DREAMers.

The House GOP fell into chaos and bickering Thursday afternoon, when House Speaker John Boehner yanked a pair of bills from the floor at the last minute. The House was supposed to have an easy final day of work before members jetted home for their five-week summer recess. But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), starring in a cameo role as Speaker of the Tea Party, sabotaged Boehner's best-laid plans.

The GOP leadership had originally intended to pass a limited spending measure to bolster border security and immediately scoot off, leaving the final tricky decision-making to the Senate. But the tea party wing of the House—inspired and encouraged by Cruz—revolted against Boehner and refused to go along with the spending bill. The House border-security measure would have appropriated $659 million in emergency spending, far less than the $3.7 billion that President Obama had requested. But it was still too much for many GOPers and it lacked the hardline, anti-immigration reform provisions many Republicans craved. With House Democratic leaders discouraging their members from voting for the GOP's bill, Boehner was left scrambling this week to pull together a majority, and he needed votes from the strident group of right-wingers who have been a thorn in his side since 2010. Those tea partiers don't want to give any extra money to the president. Boehner wasn't going to win their support without offering them some large barrels of carrots.

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Into all this uncertainty swooped Ted Cruz. Earlier this month, Cruz introduced a bill in the Senate to defund Obama's policy of deferring deportation for young undocumented immigrants, legislation that was a non-starter in the Democrat-controlled upper chamber. But, according to Politico, Cruz gathered a group of conservative House Republicans in his Senate office Wednesday night and convinced them to insist on a vote to strike down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in exchange for supporting Boehner's border bill.

By Thursday morning House leadership had yielded to that Cruz-driven demand, and a bill to revoke DACA was on the docket for the afternoon. That bill was more show than substance. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that if passed that measure "would go straight into the trash and never get a vote" in the Senate. But politicking matters to politicians, so Boehner devised a plan for the House to take up the bill revoking DACA after the House approved his legislation for border security funding. It seemed like a decent plan. But...not for the tea partiers. 

Throwing the far-right wing the DACA-vote bone wasn't enough. On Thursday afternoon, Boehner, after meeting with his caucus, abandoned ship. He canceled the vote on the border security measure, no doubt because he didn't have enough Republican votes to pass it. The Rs then announced they were postponing the Thursday-night departures and held open the possibility of a Friday morning meeting—where just maybe Boehner and his team could figure out a way to save face and round up the votes they need. For the time being, Cruz had won. His Svengali-like hold on House tea partiers was greater than the actual speaker's grip on his own people. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) declared this outside provocateur "Speaker Cruz."

Democrats and tea partiers reveled in Boehner's collapse. "Oh my god. It was so awful," Nancy Pelosi said of Boehner's bill. "Thank god." Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) offered a telling glimpse of why Boehner failed:

Boehner's failure is not just an instance of unsuccessful political gamesmanship. It could cause real trouble. If Congress leaves town without appropriating new funds for the border, the federal government's border enforcement efforts will soon hit a wall. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is set to run out of funds by mid-August, and the coffers at the Customs and Border Protection are expected to dry up by mid-September. So not only are Boehner and the Republicans in the ugly position of having done nothing related to the border crisis (while taking time out to sue the president), they have sabotaged one of the few policy matters they claim to care about: border security. Cruz's conniving and Boehner's ineptitude make a difficult combination for the GOP.