GOP's shutdown civil war looms: Why party leadership is already at odds with conservatives

Rep. Hal Rogers is trying to convince lawmakers they can nix Obama's executive action without his signature. Huh?

Published November 19, 2014 6:30PM (EST)

                                                        (Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto/Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto/Reuters/Jason Reed)

Poor Rep. Hal Rogers.

The House Appropriations Committee chairman and his team have been working months on the 12 bills required to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year and want to get them all passed, omnibus-style, before government funding runs out in mid-December.

The hotheads in his conference have other plans. They want to use the government funding process to block President Obama's upcoming executive action on immigration. This introduces shutdown politics, a threat that the Republican leadership would very much like to avoid. What's going on within the leadership, then, is basically an #IdeasSummit for ways to a) avoid a shutdown and b) satisfy the hotheads. This is not easy!

There are several options on the table.

One would be to pass a short-term measure that funds the government into 2015, and then have the incoming GOP House and Senate deal with the remainder of the calendar year.

Another would be to pass all of the long-term omnibus except for those parts funding the departments that would be in charge of implementing the Tyrannical Executive Amnesty -- Homeland Security and, maybe, Justice.

Neither of these options eliminates the standoff completely. In the former, the shutdown threat would just have to be dealt with in a few months time. In the latter, most of the government would be funded, but you'd still have to figure out a way to get Homeland Security and/or Justice funded at some point. They are sizable portions of the federal government! And then there's the distinct possibility that President Obama would veto this partial omnibus that didn't fund the entire government, and we'd get our standoff before the end of the year.

Hal Rogers is too old for this crap and just wants to get his work done as soon as possible. So he's introduced another option: rescission. It's fairly straightforward. Congress can pass the entire long-term omnibus this year and then, in the next Congress, pass a measure to retroactively rescind funds for carrying out the executive action. Rep. Tom Cole, a fellow appropriator who frequently warns his conference against taking aggressive postures that might backfire, thinks there's something to this:

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior GOP appropriator, said under the approach being discussed, Congress would enact a 12-bill omnibus in December and later, in the new Congress when both chambers are controlled by Republicans, pass a separate bill that would rescind funding for certain programs. Neither he nor Rogers specified which specific agencies would be targeted.

“We don’t know what for certain the president is going to do and so fashioning a broad response to what might be a very specific action is very tough,” Cole told CQ Roll Call. “We’re just saying that just because we’ve passed an omnibus doesn’t mean we’ve lost the ability to impact the purse. We can change the current spending in a year any time we choose to, and we’ll be in an a lot better position with a Republican Senate to do something like that next year.”

This is where things get sort of funny.

Do you spot the very obvious deficiency in this rescission plan, reader? Because conservatives who are intent on defunding Obama's executive action sure do: Obama can veto the rescission bill! Unless both the House and Senate could muster two-thirds majorities to override this veto, then the rescission plan is merely one that funds the entire government but allows the GOP to make a useless protest vote next year. This is obviously fine with the leadership and appropriators -- again: too old for this crap -- but not for those conservatives who actually want to block the policy. Rep. Steve King, whom one would generously describe as an "immigration hawk," gets this: “If there are discussions about rescissions, that probably ignores the very likely veto that one would get. If we’re talking about rescissions, we should have a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate before we go down that path."

And so Hal Rogers appears to be selling this rescission plan in a peculiar way: by lying about it. Comments from fellow Republicans indicate that Rogers is saying, behind closed doors, that rescission can take place without the president's approval. Here's how Rep. Matt Salmon described it to Breitbart News:

“Chairman Rogers just got up and said if we pass an omnibus and then the president does this executive amnesty, he said we can rescind it, and we can rescind it with 218 and 51 and we don’t need the president. That’s what he just told me. I’ve never heard that before,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), a key conservative lawmaker who has emerged as a leader in crafting strategy on the issue.

The idea startled GOP members who, according to Salmon, hadn’t contemplated the strategy until now. And Rogers had difficulty explaining the idea to a scrum of reporters given that the last time it was used was the 1990s. “I don’t think any of you have ever seen a rescission bill!” Rogers said.

“There’s any number of possibilities including rescission of spending after the fact. One of the difficulties we’re having is we really don’t know what actions he plans to actually take. When Livingston took over as chairman, he proposed and passed rescissions of spending bills that after the fact took away money that had been appropriated for an agency,” Rogers added.

The idea fascinates Rep. Dave Brat, too, who's been a member of Congress for all of one week: "If that’s true, if the House and the Senate can rescind without the threat of a veto, I’d give that a strong look."

Well, yeah. If you could pass whatever you wanted without the president having to sign off on it, that would indeed merit a "strong look." You could do whatever you wanted! It would solve so many problems for the Republican Party, wouldn't it?

Rogers conveniently fails to mention that the rescissions package that passed in the 1990s when "Livingston took over as chairman" only went into law because President Clinton chose not to veto it. As Quin Hillyer explains in National Review:

But that package avoided a presidential veto because Bill Clinton was desperately trying to “get right” with the American people in order to earn reelection. In the wake of the election, he had famously declared that “the era of big government is over.” He had painted himself into a corner. He couldn’t dare veto the bill. On the other hand, Obama now faces no reelection; and the proposed rescission would focus solely, or almost solely, on one of his executive actions, not on big spending in general. Obama would sign that rescission about the same time that a Chik-fil-A cow would eat a hamburger while flying to Pluto on a hot-air balloon.

You've got to hand it to Rep. Hal Rogers. It takes some balls to try to convince your colleagues that they can pass a law without the president's signature. That's just awesome. But beyond Salmon and Brat, few others seem to be buying it. The right is very rapidly realizing that Hal Rogers is an AMNESTY ENABLER, and primary challenges are already being discussed.

The argument is spreading in conservative circles that a government shutdown over this executive action may not just be worth it, but could even be good politics for the GOP. There's something to this: the last shutdown didn't seem to hurt Republicans' electoral prospects that badly, and the upcoming executive action won't be especially popular.

On the other hand, Boehner, McConnell, Rogers and the rest of the Republican leadership seems very devoted to avoiding a shutdown. They probably have good reasons for that.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

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Barack Obama Budget Congress Editor's Picks Gop Government Shutdown Hal Rogers House Shutdown The Right Tom Cole