With nine days left before the federal government runs out of money, House Speaker John Boehner’s ability to herd his unruly caucus toward a budget deal is now being tested. On Tuesday, he floated a plan that Senate Democrats – who control the upper chamber – say they are open to.
But will Mr. Boehner’s hardline conservatives in the House go along?
The dilemma for the speaker is this: how to avoid a government shutdown while still exerting maximum pressure on President Obama over his “executive amnesty” for millions of undocumented immigrants. Republicans believe the action is not only unconstitutional, but also bad policy.
Boehner floated a plan on Tuesday that he hopes will move House Republicans to yes – a tough job that he once likened to keeping frogs in a wheelbarrow. He proposes passing legislation that would fully fund all except one federal agency through the end of the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, while keeping the Department of Homeland Security on a short fiscal leash.
That department, which handles immigration policy, would only be funded for a few months next year – when the GOP will control both houses of Congress. The point of the restriction is to register Republican displeasure, and also preserve leverage when funding runs out.
Over in the Senate, majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada expressed openness to this budget hybrid. “It’s something I’ll look at very closely,” he told reporters. “I think it’s a shame that they’re not going to include the Homeland Security appropriations bill, but I understand why they’re doing it. We’ll take a look at it.”
But the frogs are restless.
Conservative Rep. John Flemming (R) of Louisiana told reporters that he wants the homeland security portion to expire as soon as the new Congress is seated – or close to it – so that Republicans can exert maximum leverage immediately. Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona said the legislation ought to include a rider forbidding funds to be spent on carrying out the president’s plan – a nonstarter in the Senate. Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho told reporters that a government shutdown should still be on the table as a bargaining chip.
Others conservatives questioned Boehner's plan when he presented it in a closed-door session to his conference on Tuesday morning. A sweetener also was offered: The House will vote this week on some form of a resolution by Rep. Ted Yoho (R) of Florida that would say the executive branch doesn’t have the authority to defer deportations. It would have only symbolic value, as Senator Reid said he would not take it up.
Boehner says he is still considering options – including ones to be taken next year – and that no final decision has been made about the response to the executive action on immigration.
“Frankly, we have limited options and limited abilities to deal with it directly,” he admitted at a press conference on Tuesday morning. “But that’s why we’re continuing to talk to our members.”
Should this plan, or something similar that is acceptable to Democrats, actually beat the budget deadline of Dec. 11 and be signed by the president, Boehner will have “come out OK in that there is no shutdown,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“But the pressure he is feeling from the right suggests the civil war that Republicans have been fighting is only going to get worse once the GOP is fully in control of Congress,” Professor Zelizer wrote in an e-mail. “The tea party is making clear with immigration they will not roll over and they will give Boehner lots of problems if he tries to start making deals.”