WASHINGTON, D.C. - A week ago, there were plenty of signs that leaders in Washington were trying hard to keep a deal on the politically volatile child border crisis possible. Now – you probably won’t be surprised – things may be falling apart.
"I don't have as much optimism as I'd like to have" for a deal before Congress leaves for August, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday.
There's good reason why he doesn't.
Facing increasing pressure from their political bases on how to handle the 50,000 or more child migrants at the U.S. border, both Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have retreated to their corners. Meanwhile, all around them, lawmakers notoriously toxic to deal-making are getting involved. What were once hopeful signs of a fast deal are now worrisome omens of long delays, or maybe, no deal at all.
What happened? The answer is political pressure, loud and fast, coming from the wings of both parties. It was predictable, and Boehner and Pelosi and lots of senators saw it coming. But that doesn't mean they can withstand it, and now it's dividing not only Republicans against Democrats but each of the parties against themselves.
Let's start with the Democrats. Just a week after saying she was open to GOP demands that child trafficking laws be altered to make it easier to send Central American kids back home, Pelosi changed course. "I don't think we need to change the law," she told reporters Thursday. That was after groups on the left, most notably the important Congressional Hispanic Caucus, made it clear that they see the children as refugees escaping violent home conditions, not pawns in a failed immigration debate.
Next, the Republicans. A week ago, Boehner sent a conciliatory signal to Democrats by not demanding that President Obama's $3.7 billion request for the crisis be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget. That incensed House Republicans. Child trafficking policy aside, many have responded that they only want to deliver about half of what the president is asking for. And Thursday, Boehner grudgingly acknowledged to reporters that Republicans are now strongly considering insisting that the spending be paid for. That small issue alone is a recipe for confrontation with Democrats.
Of course, in today's Congress, talking about Democrats and Republicans is not enough. We still have to deal with the tea-party-fueled conservative faction of the Republican Party. Enter Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican conservative firebrand, foe of comprehensive immigration reform, and anti-status-quo pain-in-the-side for bipartisan deal-makers.
Late this week, Cruz announced that he'll oppose any border deal that doesn't repeal president Obama's 2012 policy allowing some undocumented children to avoid deportation and stay in the country. Cruz sees the policy as "amnesty," and he said so several times while announcing his position.
Cruz may be the most important factor here. It's true he's just one senator and can't block a deal in the Senate unless lots of others go along. But Cruz has proven that he has enormous sway outside the Senate chamber, especially with vocal and politically involved voters – and radio talk show hosts – in the Republican conservative base.
And for those folks, immigration and amnesty are just about the biggest and most emotional issues in play right now. But for Democrats, Cruz's play makes them dig in on one of their most cherished political symbols: so-called "Dreamer" children who face divided families if they're deported.
Cruz has shown that his pressure can make fellow Republicans who may be willing to vote for a deal instead shy away. Remember the government shutdown when so many Republicans didn't want to have a showdown with the White House over Obamacare?
Greg Sargent over at the Washington Post thinks the meltdown around a border crisis can be blamed on gamesmanship over broader immigration issues. Sargent may well be right. President Obama has signaled he plans to go around the stalled Congress and use executive action to stem deportations – not just of "Dreamer" kids but possibly for a lot of other undocumented immigrants, too. Republicans want him stopped, and the current crisis may have become mere positioning in a broader fight.
Media attention has shifted to coverage of the Malaysian passenger jet shot down in Ukraine and to Israel's ground assault in Gaza. Less press glare could give negotiators a little more space to try and cut a quick deal this coming week.
A Boehner spokesman told reporters, including myself, that "there have been bipartisan discussions" in the last couple days about how to move a deal forward addressing kids from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador now being warehoused on the U.S. border. That's at least one remaining good sign. But right now there aren't many others.
Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.