Mitch's "Boehner-like" nightmare: Why McConnell's in an impossible immigration spot

John Boehner has to be amused to see "tactical genius" Mitch McConnell having no idea what to do

Published January 16, 2015 5:46PM (EST)

John Boehner, Mitch McConnell                                                            (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

House Speaker John Boehner seems to be in another one of those classic John Boehner moments, as he is all the time, because his life is a screeching nightmare with no exit. He's acceded to conservative demands to push the furthest rightward line in the battle for Department of Homeland Security funding. The House has passed a DHS appropriations bill that "defunds" not just President Obama's recent executive action shielding illegal immigrants from deportation, but his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, too. Conservatives were pleased. The 10 Republican defections largely came from that small segment of the party who consider it a bit over the top.

Now it will go to the Senate and get filibustered, if it's even brought up for a vote, and President Obama would veto it anyway. Conservatives offering Boehner high marks now could soon revert to their usual attitude -- that John Boehner is the greatest traitor since Benedict Arnold -- when our man is forced to bring something more closely resembling a humane piece of legislation to the floor. The brand-new Cool Conservatives Club will not, to Boehner's chagrin I'm sure, be sending an invitation his way anytime soon.

And yet this battle is different than the many, many, many.... many ones of the previous four years. It will be the first high-profile government spending fight of the Obama era in which Republicans control the Senate. And you've got to wonder if Boehner isn't, in the back of his mind, or even the front of it, entertained with the prospect of his equivalent in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, sharing the blame for the first time.

The Senate Republican leadership has been silent about what it intends to do with the House bill that's now in its lap. I'd expected them to bring it up for a vote fairly quickly, watch it get shot down, and then wait for whatever comes its way next. They may go that route eventually, but for now, they can't even decide if they should bring it up for a vote at all. As my colleague Simon Maloy explained, GOP senators from blue/swing states up for reelection in 2016 don't want their fingerprints on a sadistic piece of legislation like this. And well-known imm'gint-lubbers like and Lindsey Graham and Dean Heller are rolling their eyes. They, and other not-completely-insane senators like Sen. Bob Corker, are pushing a similar line that you're hearing from Democrats: the national security imperatives of the Department of Homeland Security shouldn't be thrown into the pit of shutdown politics.

The Senate leadership's attitude towards the House bill can now best be described as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Here is Sen. John Thune trying and failing to pretend that he has any clue how they're going to figure this out.

Thune declined to say Thursday whether the upper chamber would pass a clean funding bill for the department if the House legislation stalls in the Senate, but he added, "We recognize the important role that the Department of Homeland Security plays in this country." [...]

For now, leaders are staying mum on what they will do.

"Clearly we want to be able to give our members in the Senate an opportunity to vote as the House members did on that issue," Thune said. "There may be different ways and approaches to this issue that we can get the point across. We'll see."

We'll see!

About the only thing that Republican leaders can take a firm line on is that there won't be a lapse in funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

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And with that, and McConnell's similar remarks since the election that there won't be any shutdowns under his watch, Republicans have given Senate Democratic moderates the authority to dictate terms on what's acceptable to them. That will mean funding for President Obama's executive orders. Even conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, who don't love the president's executive action, don't seem interested in defunding them through the appropriations process.

What Boehner can do is refuse to consider any other piece of legislation, at least for a while. Get it to the point where he is the brave conservative holdout, while Mitch McConnell is the traitorous communist RINO fraud begging Boehner to produce something palatable to Senate Democrats and the White House. Boehner can sigh and concede near the last minute, before giving a press conference about how Senate Republicans didn't have the "spine" to carry out the Mission.

There must be an element of schadenfreude in Boehner as he waits for McConnell to be brought down to his lowly level of repute. For the past four years, Boehner has been dubbed alternately a RINO or a bumbling moron by all; while Mitch McConnell is touted as a "parliamentary genius" or "master tactician." The bulk of the difference in perception comes from the fact that it's a lot harder to lead a Republican majority in the age of Obama than it is to lead a Republican minority. Greatest Genius in History Mitch McConnell, now that he has to balance the "confrontational" desires of his base with the bare-bones practical necessities of funding a government, will lose much of his mythical sheen.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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