Electoral Math

The GOP May Punt on the Border Crisis

Two things will matter when Republicans debate Obama’s $3.7 billion border request: the base and the polls. Guess which one probably wins?

John Moore/Getty

So who’s being a reasonable Republican on the border issue? Well raise my rent if isn’t Karl Rove, who said on Fox Thursday morning that “Republicans have to look at this as an opportunity that they have to work.” Yes, Rove has a track record of pushing the GOP to seek Latino votes, so he has what the fair and balanced pundits call “credibility” on the issue; but with that Machiavel, you never know—he could be saying it knowing that his “responsible” reputation on the issue will spark a rebellion that will ensure that President Obama’s request fails.

I jest, a bit, but I’m just making the point that we have now reassumed the familiar and always soul-crushing position of gaming out how the Republicans are going to decide what to do with Obama’s $3.7 billion request to deal with the problem. On the one hand we have Rove and people like Lindsey Graham, who fears that the GOP will start shouldering the blame if it doesn’t act: “If we do that, then we’re going to get blamed for perpetuating the problem.”

On the other, you’ve got your usual assortment of tea people who think the whole thing is a “charade,” to quote South Carolina GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney. Most of these folks will probably coalesce around some piece of legislation, just so they look responsible to the know-nothing observer, but of course it will be legislation that’s entirely focused on border security, which isn’t really what this problem is about. It’s about: processing these kids more rapidly; maybe changing that 2008 law that made it easier for them to stay, which the administration, against some Democratic objections, is already trying to do; and treating them more humanely while they’re here. But their base wants to hear people thunder about border security, so they will inevitably thunder about border security—and possibly force Obama to sign a law that won’t fix the problem, a fact that they, also being Machiavels, will know ahead of time.

Then there’s the third hand, which is my favorite of all. This view is exemplified by John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican who says (he’s quoted in the same link to Graham, above) Obama doesn’t need any new money or authority from Congress and should just solve the problem “using the administrative capabilities that he has.” As we know, Fleming’s boss, John Boehner, has just laid out his lawsuit against Obama over his alleged abuse of executive authority. So now they’re inviting him to use more executive authority! Don’t worry, Mr. President, we won’t mind this time. Trust us. Right.

Here, meanwhile, is the thing to understand about this $3.7 billion. You’re going to hear Republicans complain, if they haven’t started already, about the fact that roughly half ($1.8 billion) of this amount would be directed not to the manly Bureau of Throwing Brown People Back to the Coyotes but to the Department of Health and Human Services. This will, I would imagine, emerge as a central GOP talking point over the next few days, because HHS is one of those bleeding heart, girly-man agencies. They’ll sneer the letters “HHS” on the Sunday shows this weekend the way they once sneered the words “latte” and “Volvo” and “Vermont.”

But it turns out that there’s a good reason half the money is going to HHS. Under that 2008 law—passed, as you’ve no doubt read by now, unanimously by both houses (unanimously, of course, includes Republicans) and signed by President Bush—when a Border Patrol agent nabs a kid from anywhere south of Mexico, the agent has to turn the kid over to HHS to make a determination about whether the kid can stay. A Bush law. The Obama administration actually wants to remove that power from HHS and give it to Border Patrol—as I noted, against the preference of many Democrats. Which raises two points. One, until that law is changed, HHS has to get a big cut of the purse. And two, if the Republicans resist Obama’s efforts to change that law, how exactly can they call themselves tough on border security?

Well, yes. We know how. We’ve all seen this movie way too many times. I don’t know what the Republicans will end up doing here, but it will be dictated by the usual two factors. First, the outrage of the base. It’s cranking up already—oppose Obama here, or you will get a primary. That’s what drives nearly everything in the congressional GOP now. (By the way, what might Lindsey Graham be saying if his primary, rather than having turned out favorably for him already, were next week?) And my it’s heartening, isn’t it, to think that the House Republican caucus is going to follow the moral lead of the Texas delegation on this?

The second factor will be their internal polls. If the polls suggest what Graham said, they’ll compromise. They did once in the Obama era on a big thing—the fiscal cliff deal. Then, their polls were telling them that they were going to be blamed if midnight struck and the Bush tax cuts expired and everyone’s tax rates increased. If the polls now tell them very clearly that most voters—let’s refine that; most likely 2014 voters—are going to blame them for the irresolution of this problem, they’ll compromise. Otherwise, they will oppose. That’s the extent of it.

You may notice that I didn’t say something like, “Well, they’ll balance the interests of the nation against the well-being of these children.” It’s naive to even think they would, but it’s worth taking a few seconds to mourn how sad it is that it’s naive to think that. But that is your Republican Party.