House Republican leaders will face a familiar dilemma this week when they try again to approve funding to keep the Department of Homeland Security functioning through the end of September: They know their party is too divided to resolve the crisis on its own but fear the political fallout if they rely on Democrats to get them out of the jam.
After a humiliating defeat of their original funding plan Friday afternoon, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has just five days to craft a new outline to keep DHS funded or face the politically debilitating prospect of at least temporarily shutting down an agency designed to protect Americans. By late Sunday, Boehner’s House Republicans had no clear path to a solution other than retreating from their demands that the DHS funding measure include provisions that would block implementation of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
A bill without the immigration language would be likely to pass because it would attract a huge bloc of Democratic supporters. But it would bitterly divide Boehner’s frustrated caucus. That prospect left Boehner facing questions on Sunday about whether he even enjoys his job anymore.
“On most days,” the speaker said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Friday wasn’t a whole lot of fun. But most days.”
Calling his latest setback “messy,” Boehner said: “I enjoy being in a legislative body. I enjoy all the personalities, and I’ve got a lot of ’em.”
Boehner and his top lieutenants fanned out across Sunday’s talk shows, seeking to portray the Friday defeat of their original funding bill — which would have extended funding authority for the DHS for three more weeks — as a dispute over “tactics” about how to confront the president on his immigration actions, which they regard as an abuse of his power. They dismiss the notion that the bill’s failure signaled a more profound divide between far-right conservative and establishment GOP factions.
“We have a difference of opinion in strategy and tactics, but in principle we are united,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on “Meet the Press.” “We are united in the principle there’s a right way and wrong way to legislate. Unfortunately, the president chose the wrong way.”
But the factions have broken open into very emotional divisions.
On one side is a majority of conservatives, who support the leadership’s tactics and believe in trying to govern. Over the weekend, one of Boehner’s closest allies, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), issued a statement that blamed the leadership’s troubles on “a small group of phony conservative members who have no credible policy proposals and no political strategy to stop Obama’s lawlessness.”
That small group is led by a breakaway faction of Republicans working under the banner of the Freedom Caucus, 10 lawmakers who repeatedly object to leadership’s moves as insufficiently conservative. This group decided it no longer trusted the original conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, and formed their own smaller, purer caucus.
Closely allied with outside conservative groups who have agitated for an aggressive line, even if it means shutting down the DHS, that caucus led the way in rallying 52 Republicans to oppose Boehner’s three-week funding plan and, initially without Democratic support, tanked that vote.
Late Friday, Democrats agreed to support a one-week bill, saying they had been assured by Boehner that he would eventually put a Senate-passed bill on the House floor for a vote. That bill contains no immigration provisions, as Democrats have demanded. The speaker denied Sunday that he had made any promises and declined to say what would happen next, aside from that the bill “may be coming back to the House.”
This latest setback prompted a flurry of speculation that the most conservative wing of Republicans would try to oust Boehner as speaker. Regardless of how difficult such a move is, Boehner’s closest supporters have taken the threat seriously.
Up to 10 of his closest friends, including Nunes and a few committee chairmen, gathered in his office in the Capitol on Friday for support and to trade intelligence about the maneuvers by the Freedom Caucus members.
These Boehner allies have privately suggested that the conservatives will call for a vote to “vacate the chair,” the only move for removing a House speaker midterm.
Such a maneuver would put Boehner’s fate in the hands of Democrats. Possibly 30 or more Republicans might vote to oust the speaker, in which case Democrats would have enough votes to throw him out of his position if they wanted.
Senior Democratic aides said that’s not likely to happen, mostly because of the precedent it would set — essentially allowing the other party to choose their leadership ranks. A future Democratic majority might be unable to elect a speaker from its liberal ranks if the Republicans banded together with moderate Democrats.
Still, a vote to oust Boehner would be the latest indignity for the embattled speaker, even if his survival is likely.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) brushed off the talk that Boehner’s job as speaker could be in peril should the House capitulate in the DHS funding battle.
“We had this vote just a few weeks ago, and that vote’s over,” he said on “Fox News Sunday,” referring to the Jan. 6 vote for speaker. Boehner won but saw 25 Republicans oppose him. “He’s speaker, he’s going forward, and he’s working hard to get our agenda moved through the House.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), dismissed talk of any push to oust Boehner. “That’s not going to happen,” Jordan said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
More immediately, the Republican leadership team must confront the DHS funding showdown.
On Monday, Senate Democrats intend to filibuster the House GOP’s request to convene a House-Senate conference to negotiate the two bills passed by the chambers — the House version giving full 2015 DHS funding with the restrictions on Obama’s immigration actions, the Senate version a clean bill, no strings attached.
Boehner initially wanted to buy three weeks to work out a new deal, seeking to give temporary funding until March 19 for the department. Instead, the conservatives led the rebellion, and Democrats essentially joined them.
It was a particularly embarrassing defeat for Scalise, who won a leadership position last year in part because of the expectation that he could bring the House’s most conservative members behind Boehner on key votes such as this one.
“Obviously, our members have a lot of differences on how maybe we want to go about tactics, but our goal is the same,” Scalise said. “Our goal is to fight this president’s illegal actions on immigration, and we’re now in a position to force the Senate to go to a conference committee, which is what we wanted to do all along last week.”
McCarthy even suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should invoke the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules to eliminate filibusters requiring 60 votes to overcome. McConnell has vowed not to make such a move against the Senate’s tradition. And while doing so would allow Republicans to get legislation undoing the immigration actions through the Senate, it would then go to Obama for his all-but-certain veto, which they lack the votes to override.
For now, House Republicans are just hoping that the political blame will shift to Democrats.
“What I would encourage is, anybody who disagrees with the president’s illegal action on immigration, like I do, light up the Senate switchboard between now and Monday evening, when they take that vote, and put the heat on Senate Democrats to stop blocking this,” Scalise said.