Recent success at the polls has done little to calm the internal rancor among congressional Republicans, who remain deeply divided over how to respond to President Obama’s overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
The latest evidence came Tuesday as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) unveiled plans to avoid another government shutdown while also allowing furious Republicans a chance to publicly repudiate Obama for acting on his own.
The hybrid approach is a telling example of how Republicans are likely to lead Congress next year: with anger toward Obama, who they believe has abused the powers of his office, while remaining wary of their own potential for overreach.
Boehner’s approach would first allow a vote this week on a bill to ban Obama from changing immigration laws. The largely symbolic legislation would be quickly discarded by the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the vote would be seen as a victory by some tea party conservatives, including the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.).
The speaker’s decision to embrace Yoho’s bill is a signal to conservatives that he is looking to one of their own as he plots his immigration gambit. Even though Boehner faces no serious challenge for the speaker’s gavel when the new Congress convenes next year, he is aware of the need to keep conservatives aligned with him on immigration or risk another revolt within his ranks.
Yoho has been promoting the idea of impeaching Obama more than almost any other House Republican, and he voted against Boehner in the election for speaker two years ago. But Tuesday he discounted suggestions that Boehner’s decision to bring him into the mix was a symbolic gesture designed to reassure conservatives.
“I don’t think so,” Yoho told reporters. “[Boehner] said this was a good bill, and they’re going to bring it up.”
Once Yoho’s bill is approved, the House would vote by next week to fund most government agencies through the end of the fiscal year next September. The one exception would be the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for the enforcement of immigration laws. DHS would be funded for a shorter period, but that time frame had not been determined as of Tuesday, aides said. The approach was introduced by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the incoming Budget Committee chairman, who is well regarded by fellow conservatives. He and other Republicans believe that the shorter timetable would give GOP lawmakers time to find ways to chip away at Obama’s executive actions.
But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned Republicans on Tuesday that incrementally funding his department would risk the nation’s security and his ability to enforce current immigration laws. Johnson clashed with GOP lawmakers Tuesday over Obama’s actions during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in which he asserted the president’s right to defer deportations.
“The reality is that, for decades, presidents have used executive authority to enhance immigration policy,” Johnson told the committee.
Whether Congress can escape the lame-duck session without a government shutdown is the first major test for Boehner and incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). As they have several times in the past, the leaders will need to grapple with the many competing blocs in their conferences and build a cross-chamber consensus in order to get the government funded, even for a short time. They will also need to be alert for any potential cracks in GOP support for a funding bill; the deadline is just over a week away, and they can expect no help from Democrats.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warned Tuesday that Republicans should not expect Democratic votes for bills that provide only short-term funding for immigration programs, leaving Boehner little room for error as he counts votes.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) seemed open to the House plan.
“That would be a big accomplishment if we could get a bill over here that would fund all the appropriations subcommittees except for one,” he said. “I think it’s kind of unfortunate that they’re talking about not doing Homeland Security, but that’s the way it is.”
Some other conservatives want Boehner to be more aggressive.
Late Tuesday, Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-Ga.) called for Boehner to not invite Obama to deliver the State of the Union address next year. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) suggested that the budgets for White House operations, including for Air Force One, should be decreased. Other conservatives have mentioned censuring the president, impeaching him or suing the administration over its immigration actions.
“I’d rather defund Air Force One,” Huelskamp said. “Congress took a 19 percent cut on its budgets — we should do the same for the White House.” On the State of the Union, he added: “In the spirit of George Washington, he could send it to us in writing. It’d save some time.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) warned his colleagues during a closed-door meeting Tuesday that they could be “accessories” to the president if they fund federal immigration agencies, according to several lawmakers present.
King told reporters that any funding for immigration makes Republicans part of the problem. “If we go forward, they’re asking members to vote to fund that in the short term, and then promising that we will fight in the longer term when we have a majority in the United States Senate,” he said. “I don’t want that red herring to be dragged across in front of us. We have to fight.”
King’s argument has been echoed in the Senate by Sen Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has pitched cutting funds for immigration programs unless the president relents and using spending bills as leverage in winning Democratic concessions.
But potential Republican presidential candidates, concerned about the political consequences of another showdown between the White House and Capitol Hill, are also keeping close watch and asking their congressional brethren to move forward prudently.
At a luncheon Monday on Capitol Hill, former Florida governor Jeb Bush told a group of GOP officials and donors, including McConnell and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), that the party should avoid a funding standoff.
Instead, Bush said in brief remarks, Republicans should pass a series of “sensible” immigration bills next year to underscore their commitment to governing and reforming the immigration system.
Bush also argued that this post-election moment was an ideal setting for Republicans to better promote their ideas on energy, education and the economy, and he said he hoped that those issues would not be overshadowed.
“It was a mature pitch,” said Bush ally Dan Meyer, a former legislative-affairs adviser in the George W. Bush White House. “He was serious about the importance of leading responsibly.”
The meeting at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s headquarters was a fundraiser for Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who is campaigning against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in a runoff scheduled for Saturday.
Separately, Heritage Action chief executive Mike Needham warned that conservative activists — especially “our 10,000 sentinels” who follow Congress closely — will rally to defund immigration programs in the coming days, shrugging off the advice coming from the party’s establishment.
“We will ask Republicans to propose a limiting amendment that would cut any fees or funds for the president’s unlawful amnesty,” Needham said in an interview late Monday. “If they put that onto an omnibus bill as a rider, it could be something we support. But we expect Republicans to use the power of the purse to make sure the president’s actions are not enforced or funded.”