Democrats to the Rescue: Congress Averts Shutdown for One More Week

Republicans could not muster support for the three-week bill and had to move a one-week measure instead.

House Speaker John Boehner walks through the House side of the US Capitol February 27, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms, Alex Brown and Daniel Newhauser
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Sarah Mimms and Alex Brown and Daniel Newhauser
Feb. 27, 2015, 8:15 a.m.

It was Demo­crats to the res­cue — again.

A huge bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion came to­geth­er Fri­day night to ap­prove a one-week fund­ing bill for the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment, pre­vent­ing a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down with just a couple of hours to spare.

Nearly every House Demo­crat joined most Re­pub­lic­ans to pass the meas­ure 357-60 after GOP lead­ers failed to squeeze out a short-term vic­tory earli­er Fri­day when the cham­ber re­jec­ted a three-week fund­ing bill amid fierce op­pos­i­tion from con­ser­vat­ives, who were angered that the bill didn’t in­clude pro­vi­sions de­fund­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s im­mig­ra­tion ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders.

Demo­crats now hope the cham­ber will get to vote by March 6 on the Sen­ate-passed long-term clean DHS fund­ing bill, though Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers claim no prom­ises have been made on that front. But Speak­er John Boehner will still have to cope with fal­lout from his own GOP troops, who are furi­ous that he has not been able to suf­fi­ciently battle back against Obama on a vari­ety of fronts.

The dra­mat­ic 203-224 vote on the three-week bill, held open for sev­er­al minutes to no avail, came after a day’s worth of in­tense lob­by­ing by the lead­er­ship of skep­tic­al mem­bers across the con­fer­ence, par­tic­u­larly in the end. In total, 52 Re­pub­lic­ans joined all but a dozen Demo­crats in vot­ing against the meas­ure, which was sup­posed to go to the Sen­ate so it could be ap­proved later Fri­day. White House spokes­man Josh Earn­est in­dic­ated that Obama would sign it, even though he would still prefer a full-year clean bill of the type the Sen­ate passed Fri­day morn­ing.

Rep. Mike Simpson, a Boehner ally, sug­ges­ted that the House could pass some ver­sion of the long-term Sen­ate fund­ing bill with the votes of “Demo­crats and a few of the adults” on the GOP side. That may well hap­pen after the one-week fund­ing meas­ure was ap­proved.

House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi sent a let­ter to col­leagues Fri­day night ur­ging them to sup­port the sev­en-day bill. “Your vote to­night will as­sure that we will vote for full fund­ing next week,” she wrote. Be­cause the meas­ure came up un­der sus­pen­sion of the rules, two-thirds sup­port was re­quired to pass.

But Re­pub­lic­ans quickly pushed back on the no­tion that they had struck an agree­ment with Demo­crats. “No such deal or prom­ise was made,” said Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel.

Yet some Demo­crats cer­tainly went to the floor be­liev­ing there was a deal.

“I think what changed was there was a com­mit­ment giv­en that if we passed the one-week ex­ten­sion that they would agree next week to bring up the Sen­ate clean fund­ing for DHS, so I be­lieve there was an agree­ment that was made,” said Rep. Janice Hahn. “We took [Re­pub­lic­ans] at their word, so I hope it’s true.”

And a seni­or House Demo­crat­ic aide, re­quest­ing an­onym­ity to share in­tern­al dis­cus­sions, said he was told both by Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship and the White House that Boehner had agreed privately to al­low a clean fund­ing bill next week.

Not every Demo­crat was con­vinced of the wis­dom of Pelosi’s strategy.

“She also as­sured Demo­crats who she whipped to vote no this af­ter­noon that in the event of the fail­ure of the three-week clean CR, Mr. Boehner would have ‘no choice’ but to bring up the Sen­ate bill to­night. How’d that work out?” asked Rep. Gerry Con­nolly.

And a sup­posed deal, Con­nolly said, is “an aw­fully thin reed on which to de­cide to vote for a one-week ex­ten­sion after you whipped Demo­crats to vote against a three-week ex­ten­sion.”

Just be­fore 8:30 p.m. on Fri­day night, the Sen­ate passed a one-week con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion un­der un­an­im­ous con­sent. The move means that now that the CR has passed the House, the Sen­ate auto­mat­ic­ally deems that it has passed in the up­per cham­ber as well. With that, the Sen­ate re­cessed for the week.

At an earli­er meet­ing of the House Free­dom Caucus, a new co­ali­tion rep­res­ent­ing the cham­ber’s most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers, Rep. Raul Lab­rador said the group had made a le­gis­lat­ive pro­pos­al to lead­er­ship. They sug­ges­ted lead­ers put on the House floor the same three-week CR, but with a pro­vi­sion man­dat­ing that it ex­pires in a week if the Sen­ate re­fuses a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee.

Even a win for House GOP lead­ers may be fleet­ing, as they and their Sen­ate coun­ter­parts will have to find a length­i­er DHS fund­ing solu­tion that can clear both cham­bers by March 6, the new-and-im­proved shut­down dead­line. House con­ser­vat­ives are in­sist­ent on block­ing Obama’s im­mig­ra­tion policies, but Sen­ate Demo­crats say they won’t give the ne­ces­sary 60 votes to any­thing but a clean fund­ing bill.

Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers’ search for votes for the DHS bill be­came ser­i­ous enough that they de­cided to scratch from Fri­day’s sched­ule the oth­er bill set to be con­sidered — a re­write of the No Child Left Be­hind edu­ca­tion meas­ure. It also was prov­ing to be a tough sell with­in the GOP con­fer­ence: Con­ser­vat­ives ob­jec­ted to reau­thor­iz­ing a large fed­er­al pro­gram, while state in­terests were put­ting sig­ni­fic­ant pres­sure on mem­bers, par­tic­u­larly those from Flor­ida, New Jer­sey, and New York.

Though mem­bers were cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic about the DHS meas­ure com­ing out of a con­fer­ence meet­ing Thursday night, the long delay por­ten­ded trouble for the stop­gap bill. Lead­ers knew they’d lose a siz­able con­tin­gent of con­ser­vat­ives, who be­lieve that Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion has plunged the na­tion in­to a con­sti­tu­tion­al crisis and who re­fuse to vote for any meas­ure fund­ing the agency tasked with im­ple­ment­ing the ac­tion.

“I don’t know how I go home and tell people that the out­come would have been dif­fer­ent if Harry Re­id had still been in charge” of the Sen­ate, com­plained Rep. Mick Mul­vaney.

And Rep. Steve Pearce said he was angry at the way the en­tire week was handled, as the House had to act at the very last minute.

“This is a protest vote on the way the whole thing is work­ing,” Pearce said. “This is not a way to gov­ern.”

But law­makers aligned with lead­er­ship were frus­trated by the con­ser­vat­ives’ move.

“They’re cav­ing in­to Obama’s reck­less­ness by not show­ing they know how to tac­tic­ally get three more weeks to con­tin­ue the fight. “¦ You can’t say you want to fight and not un­der­stand tac­tic­ally how to fight,” said Rep. Dev­in Nunes, an­oth­er close Boehner ally.

A lar­ger circle of dis­il­lu­sioned mem­bers — in­clud­ing some cent­rists — emerged as well, and lead­er­ship sources found the tar­get num­ber of votes to pass the bill elu­sive. Demo­crats did not make the task any easi­er for their GOP coun­ter­parts.

If House Re­pub­lic­ans couldn’t pass a short-term fund­ing bill for the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment, Demo­crats thought they’d have the lever­age to force Boehner to fund the agency for the full year. The prob­lem: Their plan re­lied on the lo­gic of the House Re­pub­lic­ans whose judg­ment they’ve ques­tioned all week.

House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi told her mem­bers to vote against Re­pub­lic­ans’ three-week bill to fund DHS, a rare step to op­pose a “clean” shut­down-aver­sion meas­ure. That’s be­cause the Sen­ate has passed a full-year fund­ing bill — one Demo­crats much prefer — and Pelosi thought Boehner would be forced to take up the Sen­ate bill if his short-term CR went down. “If this were to fail, they would have no choice but to take up the Sen­ate bill,” she said in her Fri­day press con­fer­ence.

Pas­sage of the long-term bill would come with largely Demo­crat­ic votes, and the ire of much of Boehner’s caucus.

Rep. Steve Is­rael said every one of his fel­low Demo­crats would help GOP lead­ers pass the Sen­ate’s long-term fund­ing bill. “We have con­sist­ently bailed them out,” Is­rael said.

But Demo­crats were con­vinced that the speak­er can’t af­ford to let the agency shut down, and they put that the­ory to the test. “If the [CR] goes down here, I think there will be great pres­sure and jus­ti­fic­a­tion for Speak­er Boehner say­ing to his people, ‘We tried and it went down, and we’re now go­ing to pass [the Sen­ate] bill,’ ” House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er said in an in­ter­view.

Be­fore the Demo­crat­ic whip op­er­a­tion sprung in­to ac­tion, mem­bers soun­ded torn on wheth­er to sup­port the bill. “I don’t want to see it shut down, but I think that run­ning the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity for two months, three weeks at a time is ab­so­lutely ir­re­spons­ible,” said Demo­crat­ic Rep. Cedric Rich­mond. “Teach­ers do les­son plans longer than that.”

Across the Cap­it­ol, Sen. Chuck Schu­mer had some simple ad­vice for the GOP.

“The vote this af­ter­noon means only one thing: Speak­er Boehner, fol­low Lead­er Mc­Con­nell and put the Sen­ate bill on the floor now. It will pass and DHS will not shut down,” Schu­mer said.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, mean­while, were largely un­will­ing Thursday to cri­ti­cize the House’s strategy, but es­tab­lish­ment mem­bers and con­ser­vat­ives alike ac­know­ledged that it is un­likely to get them any­where. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire called the three-week CR “delay­ing the in­ev­it­able.”

Sen. Ted Cruz said he is hope­ful that the stan­doff will work out in con­ser­vat­ives’ fa­vor, but warned that the party’s strategy since Decem­ber has been one that was al­ways “doomed to fail­ure.”

“In fund­ing vir­tu­ally the en­tirety of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment [in Decem­ber], lead­er­ship de­lib­er­ately gave away vir­tu­ally all of our lever­age, put­ting us in­to a box canyon where the pre­dict­able res­ult was what just happened: lead­er­ship cav­ing, join­ing with Harry Re­id and Obama and giv­ing in en­tirely. That was a mis­take. We shouldn’t have giv­en up the lever­age in the first place,” Cruz said, adding that he “eagerly await[s] lead­er­ship’s next steps”.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans praised the idea of a con­fer­ence, bring­ing mem­bers of both parties from the House and Sen­ate in­to a room to dis­cuss the is­sue, “rather than hav­ing this ping-pong back-and-forth,” as Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Con­fer­ence chair­man John Thune put it.

But Sen­ate Demo­crats have said they will not give the ma­jor­ity the six votes they need to get in­to a con­fer­ence. Now that the Sen­ate has passed a clean bill, the Demo­crat­ic think­ing goes, the only pur­pose of a con­fer­ence would be to fill it up with pois­on-pill amend­ments. Demo­crats could fili­buster whatever the con­fer­ence re­ports out, but not amend the deal — mean­ing that if Re­pub­lic­ans are suc­cess­ful in adding im­mig­ra­tion pro­vi­sions to the DHS bill in con­fer­ence, Demo­crats couldn’t get back to a clean bill. All they could do is shut down DHS.

The Sen­ate will re­turn to Wash­ing­ton at 5:30 on Monday to vote on clo­ture to pro­ceed to a con­fer­ence with the House. With 60 votes needed and Demo­crats balk­ing, that meas­ure is ex­pec­ted to fail.

Thune said he’s hope­ful that pres­sure will build on Demo­crats to ac­cept a con­fer­ence deal from the House. “They’re clearly try­ing to make this as dif­fi­cult as pos­sible. It’s hard to fig­ure how they can de­pend on not go­ing to con­fer­ence with the House be­cause that’s the way the whole pro­cess is de­signed to work. … The House will ob­vi­ously call for a con­fer­ence and we’ll see what Sen­ate Demo­crats de­cide to do.”

But Demo­crats proved over the last sev­er­al weeks that they won’t budge on passing any­thing but a clean bill, ul­ti­mately for­cing Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship to cave on the is­sue. And they don’t seem to be show­ing any signs of move­ment now.

Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.
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