GOP Leaders Still Don’t Have a DHS Plan. But They May Have an Escape Hatch.

Democrats could use the rules to force a clean funding bill through the House, unless the GOP decides to stop them.

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Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
March 2, 2015, 11:44 a.m.

House Republican leaders still don’t seem to have a plan to avoid a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security at the end of the week. But they may have an escape hatch — one that could technically keep the department open without GOP fingerprints, but might infuriate conservatives in the process.

An obscure provision of House rules would allow any member of the House to force a vote on the Senate-passed, full-year DHS funding bill now that the Senate has voted Monday evening against going to conference with the House. A message to reporters from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s office earlier Monday pointedly noted that once the Senate had acted, “the clean, yearlong Homeland Security funding bill that passed the Senate last Friday will once again be ready for a House vote at any time.”

Speaker John Boehner has not announced a way forward, and his spokesman, Michael Steel, wouldn’t tip the GOP’s hand after the Senate’s vote. “We are disappointed that Senate Democrats have once again rejected regular order. Now, we will talk with House Republican members about the way forward,” Steel said.

Most GOP members weren’t in town until Monday evening, when the House took its first votes of the week. They will meet behind closed doors to discuss the next steps at a Republican conference meeting Tuesday morning.

At his weekly briefing with reporters, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer made clear that Democratic leaders were aware of the tactic, which was first written about by Roll Call, but wouldn’t say whether they planned to use it. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declined to comment, referring instead to Pelosi’s statement from last week, in which she wrote in a letter to her members urging them to vote for a one-week continuing resolution, “Your vote tonight will assure that we will vote for full funding next week.”

Many Democrats took that to mean that Boehner had promised Pelosi a vote on the Senate-passed DHS bill. But Boehner said on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, “The promise I made to Ms. Pelosi is the same promise I made to Republicans, that we follow regular order.”

If leaders are relying on the obscure rule to get them out of the impasse, both Pelosi’s and Boehner’s statements could be technically true. But it remains unclear whether that is the case and whether members will allow it. Conservative members, who do not want a funding bill to pass without a measure rolling back President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, are studying the rule. Centrist members too are wondering whether it would work.

And Republican leaders may end up deciding that, if a clean DHS bill has to pass, it would be better for internal conference relations to do it following “regular order” — as Boehner likes to emphasize — rather than via a procedural tactic that could be painted as sneaky or underhanded.

To prevent that, Boehner and his leaders could suspend the rule. They did exactly that ahead of the 2013 government shutdown, which caused Rep. Chris Van Hollen to take to the floor and blast GOP leaders while trying to invoke the rule to call for a vote on a bill that would have averted the shutdown. To block the provision from being invoked, however, leaders likely would have to pass a rule on the House floor, and with centrist members extremely frustrated at their hardline colleagues over the impasse, it is not clear leaders would have the votes.

Rep. Steve King warned in a release Monday that Democrats “are poised to take control of the floor and fund executive amnesty. A House Resolution can stop it, if we amend Rule XXII.”

King said he had drafted a resolution to block the maneuver, adding: “A single clause in a rule we have the power to change is not an excuse to fund lawlessness. This is only a trap if we fail to act. Leadership’s back is not against the wall unless they choose it to be.”

The House has no plans to be in session Friday, meaning the DHS bill is likely to be voted on Thursday. The House is in recess next week, so the pressure of staying through a district work period may encourage members to put aside their differences and pass a bill. Also motivating lawmakers toward a quick solution: Rep. John Lewis is hosting scores of members, both Republicans and Democrats, for the 50th anniversary of the march on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala. The delegation is slated to leave Washington, D.C., on Friday morning.

This story has been updated.

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