But it turns out they may have the wrong Republican senator in their sights.
After a frantic Thursday afternoon, House leaders said the chamber will meet Friday morning, when they hope to hold a vote and shepherd through a bill dealing with the influx of unaccompanied minors coming across the southern border.
Even if the bill passes then, the damage has been done to House leaders, who had to pull the bill they were pushing at the last minute — giving new Majority Whip Steve Scalise a headache on his first day on the job.
The push began at 9:45 a.m. Thursday, when Cruz and Sessions met to talk immigration strategy, according to a source close to Cruz.
Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican, said Sessions then worked effectively to persuade the Alabama delegation to oppose the package. When asked how influential Sessions was on the delegation’s votes, Rogers said: “very.”
“He’s very respected and very knowledgable about this issue,” he said, noting that Alabama members would have trouble explaining to their constituents why they broke with the senator on immigration.
Aides said that Sessions’ behind-the-scenes and public opposition to the package played an outsize role in its failure.
“If you think this had more to do with Sessions than Cruz, I could say absolutely, there’s no doubt about it,” said one congressional aide.
Numerous other aides echoed that sentiment. One senior House Republican aide said that the senator’s messaging prowess played a significant part in hampering efforts to secure support for the package.
Last week, the junior Alabama senator released a statement saying members should oppose any legislation that doesn’t explicitly ban executive actions to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed some people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to stay.
Conservative media helped that spread. A Breitbart story on the statement was featured prominently on the Drudge Report, and that didn’t make the whip’s job any easier.
“Members read Drudge, and folks back home read Drudge in droves,” said the senior GOP aide. “Sen. Sessions’ statement on the House bill may not have been right, but it got read, and that can drive votes around here.”