Since the big GOP wins at the polls last month, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have been stressing the need for Republicans to move away from their habit of governing by crisis that has defined the last six years in Washington.
Looking to refurbish the party’s brand, they have talked up plans to address tax reform, energy policy and curb federal regulations once Congress reconvenes next year, with GOP-crafted immigration reforms also being readied for consideration.
Yet the raging debate over how to fund the government in light of the president’s immigration actions has stalled those ambitions, at least until January.
For now, much of the focus is on passing a spending bill that avoids a government shutdown, and there is growing uneasiness about how easily or quickly that will happen. Meetings and phone calls in recent days among top Republicans have been dominated by consternation over how Boehner will manage his unruly conference and send the Senate a bill that will not be vetoed by the president.
An early test for Boehner will come Thursday, when legislation sponsored by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) is slated to come to a vote in the House. The Yoho measure would publicly rebuke the president for his unilateral actions on immigration and would be an opportunity for Republicans to vent.
The bill is expected to pass, but the margin will be closely watched by House GOP whips to see whether it gives Boehner any momentum as he turns to his funding bill, which would include 11 of the 12 appropriation bills except for the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over immigration enforcement. The plan calls for a funding measure for DHS through February, about a month after the new Congress convenes.
McConnell, who met with the president Wednesday at the White House, has avoided saying much about the House GOP’s deliberations. His confidants said he has encouraged Boehner to pass whatever bill is possible, but McConnell knows Boehner is navigating difficult terrain with back-bench members, who would object to having Senate Republicans weigh in on ongoing House discussions.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), a new member of the leadership, orchestrated the inclusion of Yoho’s bill in the leadership’s plan. He is close to the House’s right flank, having chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee.
On Tuesday afternoon, he had a group of conservatives to lunch at his Capitol office. Over Italian muffuletta sandwiches, Scalise assured skeptics that Boehner and the rest of the leadership team was listening to their concerns.
House conservatives said Wednesday that they appreciated Scalise’s attempt to bring them into the process and they applauded Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a well-liked conservative and incoming budget committee chairman, for coming up with the idea to separate DHS funds from the overall spending bill.
But angry with the president and encouragedby Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other popular conservative media personalities, many of the House GOP conservatives remain skeptical of the Boehner plan.
At a Wednesday rally, Cruz framed his opposition to Obama’s immigration actions as a way for Republicans to gain support among blue-collar workers and African Americans.
“Today we are confronted with a choice between truth and mendacity,” Cruz said. “Amnesty is fundamentally unfair to the 92 million Americans who aren’t working right now. Amnesty is fundamentally unfair to the African American community that is facing historic unemployment.”
“We are facing a full-fledged constitutional crisis,” Cruz said. “We fought a bloody revolution to free ourselves from the control of monarchs.”
Not all Republicans embraced Cruz’s entry into the House talks. “Senator Cruz needs to stay in the Senate,” said Rep. Renee L. Ellmers (R-N.C.) in an interview with CNN. “I think Senator Cruz wants to fan the flames here, but I think everyone here has become more savvy to his ways.”
Boehner, who will hold a news conference Thursday to provide an update, finds himself in a familiar position one year after a 16-day shutdown damaged his party’s reputation with voters and led to fierce infighting over tactics among House GOP members. He is grappling with the many competing blocs in his caucus and is trying to build consensus in order to get the government funded, even for a short time.
If Boehner can find enough votes to approve his spending plan, it is expected to pass the Senate.
Still, the response among conservatives to the president’s immigration plan seems to put the spending deal in some jeopardy, with the fury building as the funding framework is finalized. Some Republicans have called on Boehner to not invite Obama to deliver the State of the Union address next year; others have suggested cutting the budgets for White House operations. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) has proposed defunding Air Force One. Censuring and impeaching him also have been mentioned.
Speaking Wednesday, Cruz said all Obama nominees for federal posts should be blocked unless they are for national-security positions. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who will leave Congress next month, characterized the fight as a populist one and said the GOP’s midterm success gave it the political capital to do more than pass a short-term funding bill for DHS programs. “We stand in solidarity with the American worker,” she said. “I want to know, have members of this body in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate forgotten the message that the American people sent loud and clear and unmistakably on November 4?”
The White House, aware of Boehner’s small margin for error in trying to pass a spending bill before the legislation to keep the government running expires Dec. 11, is staying relatively mum on the House GOP negotiations. Publicly, the administration is opposed to anything that does not fully fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, but privately it is aware that a short-term omnibus spending bill may be all that is politically possible.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he disagreed with Cruz’s demand regarding DHS funding. “It’d be shortsighted to deny funding to an agency that’s become one of the frontline defenders of the homeland,” he said. He predicted that Boehner and McConnell may have trouble in the coming days but they will ensure that the government remains funded.
“I think Mitch and Boehner get it, that we got a second lease on life with this past election, which is hard to get in politics. Now that we’re the dog that’s caught the car, it’s important for us to handle it appropriately. Right out of the gate, if we don’t fund the government over immigration, that goodwill would be lost.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview Wednesday that House Republican leaders have reached out to him to inquire whether Democrats could support the leadership’s spending plan. Hoyer said the lines of communication remain open, signaling he has not ruled out helping Boehner.
In the meantime, Hoyer said, Democrats know they are gaining some leverage in the debate.
“They may [need Democratic votes], so they ought to tailor it so they don’t engender opposition,” Hoyer said. “So far, they haven’t come to me about making a deal, but they have asked me what I thought and I’ve told them.”
Hoyer cautioned that if Boehner begins to tweak his plan further in the coming days with legislative riders meant to woo conservatives to vote for the spending bills, Democrats’ willingness to offer a hand could dissipate.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) said, “We’re happy to help. Now, whether this bill actually happens, that’s a different question.”
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said the Republican whips are struggling to get a majority of their members on board. “It’s probably in the 40 to 50 range,” Fleming said about the number of Republicans in the House who are reluctant to back Boehner. “Democrats are going to have to vote for [the spending plan] to get it through.”
Boehner has been relieved to see his leading rival in the House absent from the tea-party rallies and from the camp battling the leadership. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who has been mentioned as a possible challenger for the speaker’s gavel, said in an interview Wednesday that he was probably going to support the plan. “I’ve still got to review it, but that’s where I’m leaning,” he said.
Should Boehner’s plan fall apart, House and Senate aides said the fallback would be to pass a simple “continuing resolution” to fund the government for a few more months, avoiding a shutdown and discarding the appropriations bills that have been labored over for months. That would leave Congress searching again early next year for the votes to fund the government, which is exactly the opposite scenario of what Republicans leaders want for the new session.
”I haven’t seen the whip count, but I’m feeling good,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), who has been toiling for months to pass his committee’s spending bills.