Republican leaders are trying to redirect their members’ immigration rage.
By Jake Sherman and Manu Raju
11/17/14 8:04 PM EST
Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are pictured. | Getty
Republican leaders have intensified their planning to prevent a government funding showdown, weighing legislative options that would redirect GOP anger at Barack Obama’s expected action on immigration and stave off a political disaster, according to sources involved with the sessions.
Obama plans to use his executive authority to change the enforcement of immigration laws by the end of the year, a move that top Republicans warn could derail efforts to pass a long-term spending bill by a Dec. 11 deadline. Increasingly, some top Republicans believe that it will be difficult to pass the year-long spending package that they originally envisioned, and are refocusing on a shorter term bill.
Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their top aides and deputies are mulling several options that would give Capitol Hill Republicans the opportunity to vent their frustration with what they view as an unconstitutional power grab by the White House — without jeopardizing the government financing bill.
The options include offering a separate piece of immigration legislation on the floor aimed at tightening border security and demanding the president enforce existing laws, promises to renew the effort next year when Republicans have larger numbers in both chambers, and passing two separate funding bills — a short-term bill with tight restrictions on immigration enforcement agencies, and another that would fund the rest of the government until the fall.
The leadership has not made any decisions, and is likely to weigh additional options, as well. The House does not expect to bounce between options on the floor — they will pick one, and stick with it, sources said.
The strategies are all designed to prevent another standoff over funding the government. Republicans take control of Capitol Hill in January, and have promised to govern responsibly and end crisis-fueled legislating.
“I think there is a growing momentum to the idea that Congress would be acting responsibly and modestly if it funds the government but simply bars the president from executing policies that Congress believes shouldn’t be executed by denying funding,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who will chair the Senate Budget Committee next year.
GOP leaders have not completely given up on a funding bill that would last until next October — they believe the support is quite strong, absent the executive action — but the political and legislative climate is unpredictable. The White House has not told Republican leaders when it will take unilateral action, but senior aides and lawmakers have made it clear to the Obama administration that acting before Congress funds the government would backfire.
“If the president exceeds his constitutional power, we need to be reserved in our response,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. “I would rather wait until the senate is with us next year to respond to what the president does…I personally would like an omnibus with appropriate reforms. There are things proactively we can do, but if I had my choice we would do a sensible bill for the whole year.”
The least desirable option, according to several Republicans directly involved in planning, is a series of short-term spending bills. McConnell and Boehner desperately want to avoid a rolling set of spending fights early in the year, which would undermine their campaign promises to return Congress to regular order. An endless stream of stopgap spending bills would throw Washington back into the crisis-like atmosphere that has defined the post-2010 divided government. The dynamic amounts to the first true post-election test for Republican leaders: They want to push back aggressively on the administration without going too far.
If Republican leaders have to fall back on a short-term spending bill, it is likely to last through February or March to give McConnell time to set up and start his new majority. But the GOP clearly sees the short-term option as a losing fight. Republicans and the White House could be locked in an immigration-fueled, government-shutdown scare every two or three months. Boehner is keenly aware of the dynamic, and in a lunch meeting with his close allies last week, he said didn’t want to lump together the immigration and government-funding discussion.
But at the same time, expectations for a long-term spending bill are dampening. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who will be McConnell’s chief deputy in the new Republican majority, said an omnibus spending package — which GOP leaders had hoped to pass in the lame-duck session — seems unlikely at this point.
“It seems to me the two options are to do a temporary CR, for everything and to revisit it at all early next year — or to do something longer term on everything other than” the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees customs and border laws, Cornyn said. “But I know there will be controversy about that as well.”
Still, what exactly Republicans can do outside of the funding process to stop Obama remains an open question. Even if they had enough votes to pass a stand-alone bill, it would almost certainly be vetoed by Obama — and the GOP would likely lack the votes to overturn it. Moreover, House and Senate conservatives — who likely will be outraged by the president’s move — want to take the toughest legislative approach to force the president to cave to their demands.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday he’s been having “productive conversations with Speaker Boehner” and Senate Appropriations Chairman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. But he expressed uncertainty over whether Boehner could control the conservative elements of his party.
“The question is whether the Republican leaders will be able to stand up to the radical forces within their own party,” Reid said from the Senate floor. “It is more than just one or two people…It’s a large number of members of the Republican caucus over here and of course the Republican caucus in the House.”
As of now, House conservatives, meanwhile, seem unsure of their strategy.
“We gotta look at what the president may do on immigration,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “There’s all kinds of discussions happening right now, so we’ll look at a number of things.”
But the GOP leadership is growing increasingly nervous that time is short. The House is in session until Thursday, and then doesn’t return until the evening of Dec. 1. That gives Congress just 10 weekdays — at most — to pass a government funding bill.
Cornyn said that Congress should use “every tool available to us,” and withholding money seems to be the only option.
“I think it’s got to be money focused because he could refuse to sign anything and everything we send him,” Cornyn said. “I think [a stand-alone bill] is problematic.”