House Republican leadership threw its whipping operation into high gear Wednesday, teaming with powerful committee chairmen and popular conservatives to convince a handful of their on-the-fence colleagues to support an emergency border-funding package that looms as the final obstacle between lawmakers and a five-week summer vacation.
Rep. Steve Scalise, the incoming majority whip, has been working overtime with his vote-counting team to identify where members stand on the $659 million package that addresses security and humanitarian concerns at the southern border. Those efforts appeared to be paying off Wednesday afternoon, when several people familiar with the whipping effort told National Journal that Republican leadership is confident they will pass the bill Thursday without even needing Democratic votes.
"Everything is coming together," said Rep. Patrick McHenry, the chief deputy whip.
"We're in very good shape," added a senior GOP aide who has seen the numbers.
But a triumphant debut for Scalise and incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is far from guaranteed. There remains a small block of opposition—somewhere between 10 and 25 Republicans—that could defect and force GOP leadership to depend on Democratic votes to win approval for the measure. These members are unhappy not with the content of the bill, but with the language that was left out. This remnant of malcontents demands a provision repealing President Obama's executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA; some are also calling for Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte's language that would tweak U.S. asylum laws.
GOP leaders decided Wednesday evening to placate those remaining conservative foes by holding a second, separate vote Thursday -- after the main border bill passes -- on curbing Obama's discretionary authority to defer deportations. The leadership hopes that opportunity to take a public stand against the president will persuade at least some opponents to back the spending measure.
"This is an effort to get to yes," Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a noted immigration hard-liner, said in a statement Wednesday urging House leadership to include the DACA and Goodlatte provisions. "And it is my hope that with this language we can become a 100-percent unified conference."
Beyond the most rebellious lawmakers, there remain another dozen or so members who are skeptical yet not outright opposed. And it was those potentially persuadable members whom Scalise on Wednesday sought to convert with a one-two punch of respected veterans and outspoken conservatives.
Wednesday afternoon's meeting of the Republican Study Committee—the group Scalise chaired until two weeks ago—featured an address from Goodlatte himself. He urged colleagues to support the border measure, even though some are reluctant to do so because it doesn't include his asylum language. Also addressing the group were a handful of popular conservatives—Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona among them, who told his comrades that doing nothing was not an option.
"I think a 'no' vote tomorrow is incredibly difficult to defend," Salmon said after the meeting, his voice animated and making little effort to mask his displeasure with some of his colleagues. "When you ask people the question, 'What's in it that you don't like?' they can't come up with anything. Someone who votes against this tomorrow, they're going to have to go back home and explain why they voted to perpetuate the status quo. And I can't see how anybody defends that vote."
Told that Rep. Paul Gosar, his fellow Arizona conservative, planned to oppose the border bill because it doesn't address DACA, Salmon replied: "It takes a really convoluted kind of logic to get to that point."
Exactly how many House Republicans share Gosar's logic is hard to pinpoint. Interviews with individual members and leadership officials suggest that there are at least 10 ironclad opponents, while another dozen are "leaning no" but still persuadable. Republican leadership can afford to lose 17 of its members and still pass the bill with only GOP votes. Eighteen or more and they'll need to rely on Democratic support—which could spark a new round of tricky arithmetic.
As of Wednesday night the Democratic whip-count had turned up what one aide described as "a limited" number of members expected to support the GOP bill. The aide said "10 to 20" Democrats could be expected to vote for it, but noted that there had not yet been a hard whip.
Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and several other border-district Democrats were seen as possibly leaning toward supporting the bill. Meanwhile, some moderates from battleground districts who have sided in the past with Republicans on health care, spending, and other issues also are seen as possibilities.
Democratic leaders are urging members to stand united against the Republican proposal, and don't expect many of their members to support it. The primary cause for opposition is changes made to the 2008 anti-trafficking law, calling for Central American children to be permitted to opt for voluntary removal after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. It gives U.S. Customs and Border Protection more freedom on federal lands within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. And though it wouldn't change the law, it includes a sense of Congress that children shouldn't be detained at military bases.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., called the House bill "cruel" and "cheap" on Wednesday, saying many members on his side of the aisle have deep concerns with the proposed legislation. "Maybe if you want to get something done, you need to work with Democrats and compromise a little bit," he said.
Though many Democrats are calling for the 2008 anti-trafficking law to remain the same, Cuellar authored a bill with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to treat all unaccompanied minors the same—no matter the country they hail from. And Cuellar plans to support the GOP emergency package, according to his office.
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., cosponsored the Cuellar bill and said tweaks to the 2008 law in that legislation are fairly similar to the GOP border plan. But as of Thursday afternoon, he was undecided if he'd support the House emergency supplemental package for other reasons.
"I'm looking at it," he said, "and I don't like a lot of what I see."
While the border crisis has created some legislative uncertainty in the House, the lower chamber looks downright organized compared with their colleagues across the Capitol.
The Senate on Wednesday voted 63-33 on a procedural vote to move forward on a $3.57 billion supplemental bill, but Republicans, who have the power to block the bill, are bearish on its final passage. They want policy changes—something Majority Leader Harry Reid and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski have ruled out—and also question the sum of $2.7 billion to deal with the border crisis.
Democrats meanwhile are pursuing two paths. Officially, and publicly, they say they're united behind the pending supplemental bill. Reid got all but two Democrats to vote with the rest of the caucus on Wednesday, a sign that there are superficially few fissures among Democrats.
This path also excludes the possibility of adding policy language to the appropriation.
But Reid has also suggested that if the House passes its $659 million measure, he would push for a conference committee wherein he would seek to attach the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration overhaul to the report. Senate Republicans dismissed the possibility of this gambit, and most House Republicans saw Reid's threat for what it was—an attempt to frighten conservatives away from backing the House bill.
"Harry Reid is scared to death. He's pulling every trick out of the book," Salmon said Wednesday. "All that stuff is designed to scare us away from voting for the bill, because they're scared that it's going to land in their lap. And then many of his members who come from red states are going to be in big trouble."
There are few signs that behind-the-scenes talks are underway to come to an agreement before Congress leaves Thursday. Retiring Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who joined with Sen. Susan Collins during the October shutdown to try to craft a way out of that bind, said he thinks the difference between Democrats and Republicans on policy language is the biggest obstacle.
"I think the number is the least of the issues," he said. "I think you could overcome the number issue if you could deal with the policy. Or you just continue to have a problem. The problem doesn't go away unless you deal with the policy."