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DHS funding fight gives voice to Republicans' growing pragmatist fringe

A bloc of Republican pragmatists, bolstered by November's elections, is frustrated by how its party has handled the DHS funding fight. The question is whether the group can begin to exert any influence.

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    Then Rep.-elect Carlos Curbelo, (R) of Florida does a television interview on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 13. 'There's a growing sense in the conference that we need to get things done here, not just make political statements,' said Mr. Curbelo, a freshmen lawmaker.
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On Friday, when House Republicans decided to allow the Department of Homeland Security funding crisis to swallow another week of the congressional calendar, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida was not pleased.

His point might have been an obvious one yet not one endorsed by House GOP leadership: Attempting to block the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from funding President Obama’s executive action on immigration is a pointless exercise, he said.

That blocking action will never fly past Senate Democrats, who will in turn stop it, said Representative Curbelo earlier last week. Better to have saved “time and drama” and simply adopted the Senate version, even if it was a "clean" bill that didn't address Republican concerns about the executive action.

“Ultimately, we’re going to have to vote for a clean bill,” said the freshman congressman.

The pragmatic Curbelo is part of a growing group of Republicans who are coalescing into what could be called the party's "governing wing." That wing is buttressed by 12 newcomers, such as Curbelo, who come from swing districts won by Mr. Obama in 2012. These lawmakers from states such as Illinois, New York, and New Jersey may have given the GOP caucus its largest majority since the Great Depression, but not necessarily its most ideologically rigid one.

Most of Curbelo’s fellow GOP freshmen are more interested in making laws than points.

“We can’t go down the road of show votes and posturing ... because then we’re wasting our time and we’re wasting the American people’s time,” Curbelo, the son of Cuban exiles, said in an interview.

“Everyone knows that most of us disagree with the president on most issues, but that’s not good enough. We don’t want to be defined by the president. We want to define ourselves. If you look at the recent history of the House Republican Conference, in many ways it has been defined by opposition to the president,” said Curbelo, who represents the greater Miami area. “We have let our constituents down.”

In all, the newly elected House includes 26 Republicans from swing districts won by Obama, and 47 from districts in which Mitt Romney won less than 10 percent of the vote. That’s a total of 73 lawmakers from swing districts – up from 61 in the last Congress, according to Politico.

But these aren't all moderates or liberals like the “Rockefeller Republicans” of yesteryear, says John Pitney, a congressional expert and professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Speaking of the GOP freshmen, he says, “These are definitely in the mainstream of the Republican Party, but the key word is pragmatism. They want to get things done. And they don’t want to go down rabbit holes that lead to political losses.”

Republican pragmatists have bucked their leadership twice this year. In January, a House GOP bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks was pulled when a group of about two dozen women and other lawmakers objected to a provision that would require rape victims – an exception to the ban – to report the incident first to the police.

Earlier last month, a rider to the DHS bill that was meant to kill Obama’s “Dreamers” program for certain undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children barely passed. Twenty-six Republicans voted against it, including Curbelo and Rep. Robert Dold (R) of Illinois, who represents the bluest district among Republicans, the lakeshore suburbs north of Chicago.

Representative Dold – a freshman who served earlier in Congress – was one of 10 Republicans who voted against the DHS funding bill in its entirety. He also stepped out of line and voted against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, meant to put the new House on record even though the previous one had voted multiple times for repeal.

He shares Curbelo’s view about show votes versus governing. “In listening to constituents,” he says, “nobody thinks Washington is working and they’re really desperate for people to govern.” 

The courts are the proper place to settle the constitutionality of the president’s executive action on immigration, and in the meantime, the department should be fully funded and the House should move on immigration reform, he said in an interview.

So far, pragmatists have not shown they have the numbers to push leadership toward more flexibility – and more bipartisanship. Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute in Washington, calls them "very weak voices coming up against a very loud, well organized, and vehement radical machine."

Still, the ranks of pragmatists have grown since the partial government shutdown of 2013, says Rep. Charles Dent (R) of Pennsylvania. In the last Congress, Representative Dent says that roughly 180 to 200 Republicans had an “affirmative sense of governance,” while roughly 20 to 40 “didn’t share that sense.”

The affirmative nucleus is bigger in the new Congress, he says. The question is whether it is big enough to get to 218, the number needed to pass a bill in the House.

“I don’t think we know the answer to that question. At the moment, I’m not encouraged that we do,” he says in an interview.

Dent co-chairs what’s known as the “Tuesday group,” a center-right group of more than 50 Republican House members that lunches weekly to discuss and strategize over legislation. In advance of the DHS shutdown deadline, the group was taking the temperature of members, advocating the passage of a clean bill with no immigration riders, and pressing leadership to move in that direction.

Dent says he’s been urging leadership toward a clean bill since December, when the decision was made to break out DHS funding from the rest of the government budget to use as leverage on the president’s immigration plan. “It was a terrible tactic” because the bill would never get the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

“Leadership has to play the role of the adult in the room,” he criticized. “They have to set realistic expectations of what we can accomplish.” 

Now Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio is again in a box, one of his own making, says Mr. Ornstein. Hardliners are still insisting that immigration be tied to DHS funding. Denying them after so much coddling “is basically like starving a group of angry Rottweilers. You tell them to heel. To sit. They won’t do it.”

And yet, Dent points to the inescapable truth: “In this Congress, the only measures that we’ll be able to enact into law are things that the Senate can send us. And that means there will be 60 votes, and there will be some kind of a bipartisan resolution in the Senate.

“Now, we can pass messaging bills forever. We can pass a bill over to a Senate, and watch it die, even under a Republican Senate, because there aren’t 60 Republican senators. It’s that simple. Whatever we’re going to accomplish in this Congress will be whatever the Senate is able to pass.”

In the next week, either enough House Republicans will come to this realization (perhaps helped along by a favorable court ruling), or the speaker will again have to rely on Democrats, as he has on previous budget matters including Friday's one-week DHS budget extension. There are more than enough of them eager to pass a clean bill, and Republicans like Curbelo are not shy about saying that.

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