For real? Boehner, Pelosi leave door open to possible deal on child crisis on U.S.-Mexico border

Look past the cable news obsession with stagecraft

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Immigration reform has failed, the Speaker of the House is suing the president for being a scofflaw while there are cries of "Impeachment!" and a midterm election only four months away.

It’s not exactly a recipe for bipartisan cooperation to solve the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border where tens of thousand of Central American kids are streaming across.

But, largely away from public view, there are strong signs that Washington's leaders are making a real go at a deal addressing the problem. You just have to look past the cable news obsession with optics and stagecraft to see it. Or rather, look around it.

It's true that forces in both parties have set about blaming the other for the crisis. To Republicans, the border crisis is "Obama's Katrina," set in motion by his love of amnesty for illegals and the lure of a 2012 declaration that certain children of undocumented migrants would not be deported.

For Democrats, the entire mess is a symptom of House Republicans' inability to pass (or even debate) an immigration reform bill. If Boehner's unruly troops could have put aside their nativist impulses long enough to debate a bill, the border would be more secure, and the president's policy on the so-called DREAMer children would never have been needed in the first place.

The president and the speaker are delivering the requisite taunting that their parties demand. Obama on Thursday goaded House Republicans for, among other things, their failure to even write an immigration bill this year. "I'm the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy," Obama jabbed at an implied Boehner to raucous cheers from a crowd in Austin, Texas.

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President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Paramount Theatre on July 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)

Boehner answered with angry words on immigration, yelling in front of reporters, "This is a problem of the president’s own making. He’s been president for five and a half years. When is he going to take responsibility for something?"

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other congressional leaders have joined in. But while the TV cameras soak up the insults, the truth is that these leaders, at least so far, are doing everything they can to set the conditions for an actual deal on the president's request for an “emergency supplemental” of $3.7 billion to deal with the border crisis.

Paying for spending

Over the past few years, Republicans, driven by conservative and tea party demands for budget cuts, have insisted that “emergency supplemental” spending be paid for by cutting somewhere else. And in today's Washington, it can be a quick recipe for killing a deal, or at least putting it in serious jeopardy. Think back to Hurricane Sandy, when it took three months and a lot of GOP political damage to approve $50 billion in aid after conservatives demanded offsets.

John Boehner knows how his conservatives feel about new spending, especially new spending that would help President Obama solve politically toxic border crisis. And when Obama sent his request to Congress this week, Boehner made a point to offer that the whole crisis was the president's fault and could have been avoided.

But what Boehner didn't offer was any demand that the $3.7 billion be paid for with other cuts. This incensed the conservative factions in Boehner's party. But it also meant that Boehner was leaving the door open for Obama and Democrats to negotiate a real deal with him on border policy.

And that's where Nancy Pelosi comes in. The House Democratic Leader is under enormous pressure from progressives and immigration advocacy groups to oppose any change that makes it easier to send Central American kids back to face violence in their home countries. On Friday, Rep Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a major immigration reform backer with a lot of clout, announced he would vote against any deal that changes the law to make it easier to reject the kids.

Like Boehner, Pelosi knows what the core of her party and its Latino supporters want. On Thursday she told reporters that the GOP wanted the "trophy" of making it easier for U.S. Border Patrol agents to turn Central American kids away. But she didn't say that altering the law in a way her party opposes was off the table. "It's not a deal-breaker," Pelosi said, before adding that getting the border money approved was the most important thing. So there was Nancy Pelosi, holding the door open for a speaker already holding it for her.

Finding the 'yes' votes

Both Pelosi and Boehner know that chunks of their respective parties will not vote for a border deal that spends $3.7 billion while making child deportations easier. It's a coalition of "yes" votes that cuts out the fringes that they'll likely need. Meanwhile, over in the Senate, there were subtle but unmistakable signs that leaders were also trying to keep the door open for a deal.

On Wednesday, Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake joined Texas Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz on the Senate floor for a border-state talk about the child migration crisis, and, while they were at it, to take a few shots at the White House.

McCain and Flake both helped craft the Senate's immigration reform bill, but Cruz is the wild card. He's a far-right conservative leader who's shown his ability to whip up the GOP's right wing. Remember the government shutdown? When Cruz supporters start calling and emailing GOP senators, it can make it impossible to vote for deals they might otherwise stomach. But when Cruz started slinging political rally words like "amnesty" on the Senate floor, McCain tried to cut off Cruz, and then Cornyn jumped in and put a stop to the Cruz fusillade.

It's not that Cornyn is an Obama fan, especially on immigration. It's that he's also the assistant GOP leader, who knows his party could pay a heavy political price with moderates if they're seen killing a deal to help imperiled children. Cornyn may or may not vote for an eventual deal with Democrats, but he appeared to be trying to make sure Cruz didn't destroy the chances of it even getting made.

There is no room for Pollyannas in Washington right now, and none of this means a deal will succeed. There's plenty that can go wrong as Boehner, Pelosi and other leaders sit down to thread the needle that will get them enough votes to marginalize their party bases and pass a bill. And, of course, there already are plenty of people doing their best to shake the chairs and make that delicate work impossible. But every sign so far suggests that party leaders are actually doing everything they can to get a deal for the kids.

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.

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