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Not a done deal: Congress at odds over Obama’s border crisis package

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July 9, 2014: House Speaker John Boehner participates in a news conference on Capitol Hill.AP

House Speaker John Boehner was non-committal Wednesday morning when asked about prospects for approving President Obama's $4.3 billion emergency spending bill to tackle the dilemma over the border and to help with wildfires singeing the American West.

But the Ohio Republican didn't veto the proposal, either.

"It's time to take a serious look at what needs to happen," Boehner said, adding he was "going to look for recommendations" from an ad-hoc band of lawmakers he assembled to study the arrival of minors at the southern border.

The "Speaker's Working Group" on the border, chaired by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, neither fanned nor doused the flames. In a joint statement, those Republicans described the plight of unaccompanied minors as a "horrific and perilous journey." But when it came to a course of action for the spending request, lawmakers offered little clarity.

"We will review the facts and continue to gather on-the-ground information in order to develop a series of recommendations regarding actions the administration can take within its authority as well as legislative solutions for the Congress to consider to address this crisis."

Not a ringing endorsement. But again, not snuffing out anything.

So does this have a heartbeat?

Democrats are making the case.

President Obama huddled Wednesday in the Lone Star State with Texas Gov. Rick Perry about the border issue. The president used the occasion to again pitch lawmakers on the money.

"Congress just needs to pass the supplemental," implored Obama. "This should not be hard to at least get the supplemental done. The question is are we more interested in politics or are we more interested in solving the problem?"

The supplemental request is essentially an additional spending bill on top of the 12 measures Congress manages each year. The federal government is chopped into 12 unequal slivers of federal spending. But a "supplemental" measure is just that: a "13th" appropriations bill. Three years ago, Congress imposed certain fiscal restrictions to help limit spending -- except in the case of an emergency, like the emergency supplemental spending request Obama issued Monday.

That sort of fiscal Pilates doesn't impress congressional conservatives, especially those loyal to the Tea Party who remain apoplectic that federal spending remains as high as it is.

"There is zero support for the supplemental in our conference," said a senior House GOP source, emphasizing the point by squeezing his thumb and index figure together to form a "zero."

"Zero" may be the parliamentary reality for Republicans. But there could be political consequences for the GOP if the public (or Democrats) frame the party as being inured to helping the children over a quest to balance the fiscal ledger. Republicans are already reeling in popularity among minority voters over a reluctance to move an immigration reform plan through the House. Some Republicans fret privately that voters could see Republicans as hardened to the plight of the minors.

"When it comes to this policy of sending these children back, we had better think this through," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "We don't want to send them back to a deadly situation."

That's why there could be some legislative options to advance the supplemental, despite the frosty reception from rank-and-file Republicans.

One senior Democratic member of the House leadership team suggested Boehner could resort to a type of parliamentary "algebra." Boehner has turned to this gambit before when faced with a "must pass" piece of legislation and the speaker has scant Republican votes at his disposal. The calculus works like this: 218 is the magic number required to pass a bill in the House. But Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., must grapple with congressional "replacement sets" (to use an algebraic phrase) to reach 218. In the past, the GOP has informed Democrats how many votes Republicans can provide - despite Republicans being in the majority. Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., can then figure how many Democrats are needed to approve the bill. In other words, xRepublicans + yDemocrats = 218.

Still, it's possible that gluing the supplemental to another piece of legislation could muscle the plan through Congress.

There are three major bills lawmakers feel they must address soon. The first is the Veterans' Affairs reform bill. The astronomical cost of that measure jammed that bill up in a conference committee. The same is true with a possible measure to infuse the Highway Trust Fund with cash. That pot of money is nearly broke. A depletion of funds could wound the economy and halt major infrastructure projects around the nation. The third item is a stopgap spending bill to avoid a partial government shutdown this fall.

"I don't know if they'll be married, but they could be walking down the aisle together," said Durbin when discussing hypotheticals of wedding the supplemental to other bills.

Durbin shrugged his shoulders when asked if Republicans might allow a scenario to link the supplemental to another major piece of legislation.

"Don't ask me to understand the conservative mind," the Illinois Democrat replied.

Finally, one pairing option may still emerge for the supplemental.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is collaborating with Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, on legislation to alter a 2008 law to accelerate deportations. The 2008 statute requires children from countries not contiguous with the U.S. (meaning Canada and Mexico) be placed with sponsors while waiting for a court hearing on their deportation cases. But often, the cases are never heard. Cuellar hopes to draft a bill to treat children from all countries the same. The president told Congress Tuesday he wants to amend the 2008 law to give him more agility to expedite deportations.

"Texans will work to solve the problem," offered Cornyn.

But this border issue continues to stump policymakers in Washington.

"Every day that goes by as we work on this situation, I feel like I have just as many questions as answers," said Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, who represents a district which hugs the Mexican border.

Much like solving an algebra problem. 

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.