With the One-Week DHS Funding Bill, Republicans Again Find Themselves Mired by Distractions

The fight to come on the Hill this week will just emphasize the Republican rifts and cloud their legislative agenda.

National Journal
March 2, 2015, midnight

Con­gress voted it­self a life­line Fri­day: sev­en more days to find a way out of a Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment shut­down. But for Re­pub­lic­ans, an­oth­er week-long DHS fund­ing saga threatens to only mag­ni­fy ten­sions between rank-and-file mem­bers and their lead­ers, and take the fo­cus off a policy agenda the GOP had hoped to define it­self by.

TSA agents may still be get­ting paid, but the short-term fund­ing bill car­ries a polit­ic­al risk for the GOP. While Re­pub­lic­an aides in­sist that the DHS fund­ing woes are merely a sideshow and that both cham­bers of Con­gress will turn their fo­cus to new mat­ters next week — such as over­rid­ing the pres­id­ent’s Key­stone pipeline veto and host­ing a joint ses­sion of Con­gress for a speech from Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu — a de­bate over DHS fund­ing un­doubtedly eats up valu­able time on the con­gres­sion­al cal­en­dar and news­pa­pers’ front pages. Already, the House was forced to take an edu­ca­tion bill off the floor Fri­day as the con­fer­ence was still di­vided and the more press­ing DHS shut­down loomed.

“Reg­u­lar or­der takes a little more time,” says Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who shrugs off sug­ges­tions that the Sen­ate and House back-and-forth is dan­ger­ous for the party.

But when the con­fetti fell last Novem­ber and Re­pub­lic­ans won their ma­jor­ity, the ex­pect­a­tion was that the Re­pub­lic­an Party and its lead­ers would be hit­ting their stride by now. The party had a clear man­date: re­turn to reg­u­lar or­der while prov­ing it could gov­ern with policy pro­pos­als on everything from Obama­care re­place­ments to tax re­form that went bey­ond just block­ing Demo­crats. In­stead, Con­gress ap­pears to still be claw­ing from crisis to crisis.

In­tra-party squab­bling has un­der­mined Re­pub­lic­ans’ abil­ity to ex­hib­it its dis­cip­line to gov­ern and it has al­lowed Demo­crats to ex­er­cise power in the minor­ity. When Re­pub­lic­ans failed to stay to­geth­er to pass a three-week fund­ing meas­ure for DHS, it gave Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi lever­age that may ul­ti­mately get every­one to a clean bill by the end of next week.

“All this has done is em­power Nancy Pelosi,” says Rep. Mario Diaz-Bal­art-R-Fla.

The year began with an at­temp­ted 25-mem­ber coup against House Speak­er John Boehner fol­lowed by a show­down between GOP wo­men and lead­ers over abor­tion. Now, after a month­long de­bate over the Home­land Se­cur­ity fund­ing bill, lead­ers are punt­ing a fi­nal res­ol­u­tion for an­oth­er week, a move mem­bers say won’t help the party’s repu­ta­tion.

“If the Amer­ic­an people don’t know that, they are go­ing to find out we are di­vided,” says Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. “I re­gret that. We are the gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity. We need to be able to prove we can gov­ern, and we need to have a sense of real­ity about what it is that we can do.”

With its new ma­jor­ity, the GOP as­sured voters it could block Pres­id­ent Obama on everything from im­mig­ra­tion to a min­im­um-wage in­crease, but the real­ity re­mains: House Speak­er John Boehner and Sen­ate Ma­jor­iy Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell have to game out two vastly dif­fer­ent scen­ari­os. Without a fili­buster-proof ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate, Mc­Con­nell has to cut deals with Demo­crats and find con­sensus among cent­rists. Mean­while, Boehner is forced to reck­on with a con­ser­vat­ive fac­tion that wants him to pick fights he ul­ti­mately can’t win.

“We swim up­stream on too many is­sues,” Womack says.”We put our speak­er through the mill.”

Many Re­pub­lic­ans in the House say its time for their fel­low mem­bers to — as Nancy Pelosi put it Fri­day — “get a grip” on real­ity and re­con­cile their wishes with their party’s polit­ic­al lim­it­a­tions in the Sen­ate.

“The op­tions that I see them are, we shut the gov­ern­ment down or we give Obama what he wants. I don’t see much middle ground,” says Tom Rooney, R-Fla.

If DHS were be­hind them, Rooney and oth­ers ar­gue, the House could more eas­ily move onto oth­er le­gis­lat­ive items that put Demo­crats and Obama in the hot seat, like re­peal­ing the med­ic­al device tax or lay­ing out a clear out­line for tax re­form.

“I think this is an is­sue that has been a dis­trac­tion all along,” says Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who was a pro­ponent of lead­er­ship tak­ing up the fight to de­fund Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion through the CRom­ni­bus ne­go­ti­ations last Decem­ber. “We should have taken care of this months ago. We are where we are at be­cause of a lead­er­ship de­cision back in the last Con­gress.”

But Rep. Tom Cole, a close Boehner ally, says a short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion is also about set­ting the tone with Mc­Con­nell.

“I think this is about hold­ing our own ground,” Cole said. “On some levels, it’s Re­pub­lic­ans versus Demo­crats, but there are a lot of House versus Sen­ate here too…. You are not just go­ing to drop something on us the last day and run out of town.”

But while his al­lies say Boehner may be do­ing his best in the fund­ing show­down, con­fid­ence in lead­er­ship is wan­ing. Some mem­bers have threatened that if Boehner tries to re­solve the fund­ing statem­ate — after weeks of im­passe — with a clean DHS fund­ing meas­ure this week, his speak­er­ship could be in danger.

“It goes bey­ond Boehner,” said one Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber who asked not to be named when dis­cuss­ing lead­er­ship’s prob­lems. “I hon­estly be­lieve that if Boehner can­not rees­tab­lish trust then neither can [Ma­jor­ity Lead­er] Kev­in [Mc­Carthy].”

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