If even Sen. Ted Cruz, the firebrand Texas conservative, is on board to end the impasse over funding the Department of Homeland Security, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and his unruly Republican conference may have no choice but to reluctantly go along.
With help from the Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Wednesday put the Senate on course to pass the $40 billion spending measure without controversial House language blocking President Obama’s immigration executive orders.
McConnell also scheduled action for later this week on a separate bill. It voices opposition to Obama’s executive orders designed to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation but does not affect the DHS’s spending authority.
The Kentucky Republican tried and failed four times before to get the House-passed language through the Senate. McConnell then switched gears and pressed for passage of his own two-step approach, enlisting crucial last minute backing from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (R-NV).
On a key procedural vote Wednesday, 98 Republicans and Democrats backed McConnell’s plan, while only two conservative Republicans – Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma – voted nay.
Cruz, who may seek the GOP presidential nomination, has often clashed with McConnell and the Senate GOP leadership over budget and policy issues. On several occasions, he met privately with conservative House members in a move to undercut Boehner’s positions on controversial matters – including what led to the 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013.
After last November’s election, Cruz openly criticized the GOP leadership’s decision to postpone action on permanent legislation to fund DHS through September, in order to buy time to strategize on blocking Obama’s immigration executive action. The House last month passed a bill prohibiting DHS from using funds to implement those executive orders.
Cruz has advocated holding DHS funding hostage as a strategy for blocking implementation of Obama’s executive orders. He argued recently that McConnell, Boehner and other GOP leaders were misplaying it and that the administration and Democrats would ultimately force them to capitulate to avoid being blamed for a partial shutdown.
Yesterday Cruz told reporters he wouldn’t try to delay a final vote on a “clean” DHS spending bill – and had nothing more to say on it, the Associated Press reported.
Amid mounting concern and anger over beheadings and slaughter by ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the homegrown terrorist attacks in France, Denmark, Canada and Australia, and recent threats against U.S. shopping malls, congressional Republicans appear to be finally backing down from a fight with the administration over keeping DHS fully operational.
Despite dire warnings by officials about the risk of failing to pass the spending bill by midnight on Friday, about 85 percent of the 240,000 DHS employees are deemed “essential” and must report for work at the Secret Service, immigration services, border patrol, Coast Guard, and other vital enforcement agencies.
Yet a partial shutdown would be a PR fiasco for Republicans, with stories galore about roughly 220,000 essential employees having to work without paychecks, while another 30,000 non-essential workers are furloughed and sent home. Polls also indicate the public would blame Republicans more than Democrats for a shutdown, regardless of the circumstances.
Jeff Sessions, the most vocal opponent of Obama’s immigration policies in the Senate, hasn’t said yet whether he’ll block a unanimous consent request to vote before Friday’s deadline. Otherwise, the chamber will have to spend 30 hours debating the legislation before taking a final vote. If that happens, the whole process could be pushed into next weekend.
Boehner wouldn’t speculate on how members would vote when the issue is sent back to the House. Many conservatives are still fuming about how Obama’s immigration orders seem like reckless executive overreach; but after the House last month approved its version of the DHS bill, Boehner’s attitude was that his work was done and it now was up to McConnell and the Senate Democrats to take it or leave it.
Oddly, with the crisis over immigration and DHS spending crashing down around their party’s head, Boehner confirmed yesterday he didn’t talk to McConnell at all these past two weeks, while Congress was in recess.
“We’re waiting for the Senate to do their job,” Boehner said Wednesday. “Their Democrats have stood in the way now for three weeks over a [House-passed] bill that should have been debated and passed.”
As for why he didn’t pick up the phone at least once to confer with McConnell the past 14 days, Boehner said the two leaders’ staffs stayed in touch. “Listen, Senator McConnell has a big job to do, and so do I,” Boehner snapped.
Meanwhile, a number of House GOP leadership aides and lawmakers told Politico they were heartened by the response Wednesday morning to Boehner’s tone. Many conservative Republicans are angry the Senate is preparing to pass a “clean” DHS funding bill. Yet the mood in the GOP conference wasn’t as negative as many expected, Politico reported. No House Republican members stood up and urged the party to shut down the agency, for example.
Still, there’s no guarantee Boehner will take up the Senate’s plan if it passes the chamber. Republican aides are also discussing the possibility of a short-term funding bill to keep the agency open for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
“Yes, this funding issue all falls into Boehner’s lap, but he’s been in this position before and has figured out how to handle it,” noted Ron Bonjean, a Washington political strategist. “One way has been to allow a shutdown to occur in order for his members to understand the political consequences of what can happen when that occurs.”
He added, “This may have to be another learning experience, or they may see the light and decide to change course at the last minute. We’ll have to see.”
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