Why Homeland Security crisis is about much more than John Boehner

The deadline fight over DHS funding illustrates Speaker John Boehner's continuing dilemma: How to get things done in Congress when the tea party wing of the GOP in essence filibusters its own caucus in the House of Representatives.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, walks to the chamber as the House deliberates a short-term measure to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded past a midnight deadline Friday evening, Feb. 27, 2015.

If Republicans were going to make good on their promise of showing they can govern now that they run the House and Senate, the drama of the past week was always likely, and perhaps inevitable. 

The question now is what will happen from here. The coming days will give an interesting indication of what the hard-fought Republican majority might actually amount to over the next two years.

The current flashpoint is the bid to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The outlines of the debate are familiar in the House of Representatives' post-2010 tea party era. The conservative wing is pushing Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio to use Congress's fiscal levers to punish the Obama administration. In this case, it wants to use the DHS bill to try to neuter President Obama's November executive action to defer deportation for nearly five million undocumented immigrants. 

But Mr. Boehner doesn't really want to do it. Yes, on one hand, it is a topic that will motivate the very base that gave Republicans control of Congress. That's good, from Boehner's perspective. But he also knows it's bad politics, because the ploy will never work. He doesn't have the votes to get the bill to Mr. Obama's desk, and he knows it would be vetoed even if he did.

Which brings D.C. squarely back to where it was before November's election: The tea party acting as a filibuster on its own caucus.

On Friday, conservatives once again threw the House into chaos when they refused to go along with Boehner, who all but threw in the towel on the Republicans' DHS funding scheme. (Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had already given up the fight earlier in the week.)

This is what the tea party does. It doesn't have the numbers to pass legislation, but it does have the power to obstruct. Since tea party doctrine holds that obstruction of a bad bill is far preferable to concessions to make it marginally better, members are just doing what they were elected to do.

But for Boehner, the stakes are higher. Before last fall, Republicans could always blame the Democrat-led Senate when things went wrong. Now, that excuse is gone. Which means, if Republican leaders are serious about passing legislation designed to show the House and Senate can work together to get things done, they have to consider doing an end run around the tea party.

It's not a question of partisanship or ideology. It's matter of math, and it's been plain since before last November.

The midterm elections gave Boehner a few more moderate Republicans, but not enough to trump his conservative wing. To pass legislation his conservatives don't like, he needs to rely on Democrats.

He's done this before, usually in the same situation: Conservatives push Boehner to use the nation's checkbook like a weapon, and Boehner eventually loses his stomach, seeing the mounting political costs and the futility of the fight. It worked that way in December, when Democratic support overcame conservative Republican opposition to pass a two-year spending bill for the entire federal government (except DHS). It worked that way in 2013 to avoid the "fiscal cliff," as well.

Reports suggest Boehner is about to do the same thing again, cutting a deal with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California essentially to pass a "clean" DHS funding bill free of the executive action fight.

The fact that the House has returned to this legislative Square One is not really much of a shock. The math always suggested it was coming. But what will Boehner do now? It's the first time the conservatives have put him in this position since the supposedly transformative November election.

Will he do what he has done before, turning to Democrats only to push through a must-pass bill, then returning to his role as husbandman of a fractured caucus? That would suggest the tea party insurgency will continue to "filibuster" the Republican leadership, and perhaps at key moments.

Or will Boehner attempt to rule from the center, cobbling together a new voting bloc from moderate Republicans and Democrats in a bid to show that the Republican Congress can get things done? That would be a recipe for a potential challenge to his speakership that might break either his political career or the tea party's wall of resistance.

For Republicans – and particularly for Boehner – there are dangers in both paths. The days ahead will suggest how much November's election has really changed the Republicans' congressional calculus.

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