Homeland Security deal: Will Boehner follow McConnell's lead?

The Senate voted Wednesday to clear the path to fund DHS, after Republicans agreed to withdraw immigration restrictions from the bill. But it will be tougher to get it through the House, where member districts are more homogeneous.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Former Homeland Security Secretaries, Tom Ridge (l.) and Michael Chertoff (c.) join current Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (r.) for a joint news conference in Washington, Wednesday. Senate Democrats on Wednesday signed onto a Republican plan to fund the Homeland Security Department without the immigration provisions opposed by President Barack Obama. The announcement by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid put the Senate on track to pass the bill as a partial agency shutdown looms Friday at midnight.

No question, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky blinked when it came to funding the Department of Homeland Security.

With the clock ticking toward a DHS shutdown Friday night and Democrats repeatedly blocking debate on a funding bill because it contained immigration “poison pills,” the Senate leader gave Democrats what they wanted on Wednesday: a “clean” funding bill, minus the toxic measure to block President Obama’s executive immigration action on immigration in November. That will be taken up separately.

Will House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio also blink, and bring the clean bill – expected to pass the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote – to the floor? Such a move would put him at odds with many in his caucus, and possibly prompt a challenge to his leadership.

As weeks of struggle over DHS funding have shown, Republican control of both chambers doesn’t necessarily mean smooth sailing for the GOP. Even when the two leaders agree on policy – as they do in this case – they work under very different conditions, with each chamber having its own political climate and ways of doing things.

Majority leader McConnell for instance, faces the unique challenge of the filibuster – the Senate blocking device that requires 60 votes to overcome. With Republicans holding 54 seats, he needs at least six Democrats to pass any controversial legislation, an incentive for at least a minimally bipartisan approach.

He also has 24 senators up for reelection in 2016 – several of them from blue states. That encourages political flexibility. Most GOP House seats, on the other hand, are secure in gerrymandered districts and red states. That promotes rigidity.

“McConnell has his own challenge. Having won a majority, and a bigger one than he expected, he still has a challenge in holding it. And holding it means showing he can govern and providing some protection for senators who are up in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, in New Hampshire,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

House Republicans, on the other hand, “dominate” in states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas, Mr. Ornstein points out. “These individual House districts are themselves homogeneous echo chambers.”

You can hear the difference when talking with Republicans from these two worlds. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk is up for reelection in Illinois, which Obama easily won in 2012 and 2008. He was an early supporter of a “clean” bill to fully fund DHS without the immigration riders. He wanted nothing to come between his state and the funding.

Senator Kirk recalls traveling through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which is a known potential terrorist target. “Boy did I get an earful from the people I represent,” Senator Kirk says in a brief interview in the Senate basement, on the way to his office. “Chicago doesn’t work unless US military protects the United States. We gotta have DHS.”

Kirk says he’s tried to be the consistent “lone voice in the wilderness” on DHS funding, and “if our party doctrine was to mess the bill up, then to say that the party doctrine was wrong, and we should just pass clean DHS.”

But just a five-minute walk away, on the House side of the Capitol, Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana holds the opposite view. A tea party favorite, he faced no Democratic opponent in his reelection bid of 2010, but he did face a Libertarian one.

In a scrum of reporters, Congressman Fleming said a potential DHS shutdown did not come up at a closed GOP House conference Wednesday morning. The real question, he continued, is the president’s November executive action that would shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. That’s executive overreach and unconstitutional, he and other Republicans say. In January, the House GOP passed a DHS funding bill that also blocked funding for that program.

“The only tool we have in Congress to block an unconstitutional act that would severely damage Americans for generations to come is to deplete the funding of that very executive action, and that’s what our bill does and that’s what we intend to do,” he said.

When asked what his constituents think should be done about the funding issue, he said, “We don’t get a lot of calls because they know my position on this. If I deviated, they’d be very upset.”

Indeed, conservatives such as Fleming would be very angry if Boehner decided to bring a clean DHS bill to the House floor. 

Many have said they would not vote for a bill that did not also block the president’s immigration action, and they’re supported by conservative bloggers and outside groups who are already screaming about a cave-in.

Some House Republicans might even try to stage a leadership coup. In January, 25 Republicans voted for someone other than Boehner for speaker.

 While McConnell faces his challenge of 60 votes, the speaker’s challenge is to keep his diverse caucus in line so he can reach the magic target of 218, the number of votes needed to pass a bill in the House.

Republicans hold 247 seats, but with a diverse caucus, it’s a challenge getting to 218. Boehner likens it to keeping frogs in a wheelbarrow, and on controversial legislation – such as the budget – he’s had to turn to Democrats for votes.

“For Boehner, just as it has been for the last few years, his challenge is how many times can he bring up things for passage that will require more Democrats, and when he brings those up, can he be sure he’ll get enough Republicans to add to the Democrats?” Ornstein says.

If DHS is to be fully funded, a bill that kills the president’s executive action won’t be part of it – that much has been made clear by the Senate showdown. Boehner will either have to bring his caucus around, or turn to House Democrats to buttress his numbers, with a fallback position being a stopgap continuing resolution.

“I think Boehner in his gut knows that he’s going to have to face reality here,” says a Republican House member, speaking on background. “It’s just a matter of the speaker being able to articulate this to those members – to the ‘hell no’ caucus, who are going to be unhappy with anything short of a complete and total victory.”

In other words, he'll have to blink. 

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