GOP's immigration endgame: Waiting patiently for Republican leaders to cave to Obama

The House GOP's doomed-to-fail DHS funding bill failed, so now we wait for John Boehner to bow to political reality

By Simon Maloy
Published February 4, 2015 7:00PM (EST)
John Boehner, Mitch McConnell                                                            (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Republican effort to use funding legislation for the Department of Homeland Security to roll back President Obama’s executive actions on immigration has failed. The House-passed bill, which funded DHS for most of the year and undid several years’ worth of unilateral action by the president to shield immigrants from deportation, was filibustered by the Democratic minority in the Senate yesterday. The Senate Democrats were joined in their opposition by Republican Dean Heller of Nevada, who said last month that he was “a little bit leery” about the House bill, given that it might come off as “offensive” to the country’s (and his state’s) growing Latino population. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who’d criticized the bill as “a self-inflicted political wound for Republicans,” did not vote.

This strategy’s failure was never in question. From the very moment the idea was conceived last December during the “Cromnibus” fight, nobody labored under the misconception that it had a greater-than-zero chance of success. It was embarked upon for one reason: John Boehner needed to keep the crazy anti-immigration people in his caucus happy, and the only way to do that and get enough support to prevent another government shutdown was to pick a symbolic fight with Obama.

They lost that fight, so now comes the inevitable question: what next? The Department of Homeland Security still needs to be funded before the end of the month, or it will enter into “shutdown,” which is a bit of a misnomer since most of its functions would continue unimpeded, including the implementation of Obama’s executive actions on immigration. What a shutdown would do, however, is open up Republicans to political attacks that they’re monkeying around with the budget for the agencies charged with safeguarding national security. That’s why Republicans have spent the past month adamantly insisting that the agency will be funded. So how are they going to do it?

No one seems to know. “I’ve been in at least 20 discussions in the last 72 hours or week on this,” John McCain said yesterday. “Nobody really has a strategy yet, I’m sorry to say.” Republican leaders have been trying for a while to figure out how to extricate themselves from this mess they created, but to no avail. They’ve kicked around a few options – appease conservatives with a harsh border security bill, sue the president, pass a short-term DHS funding bill to buy time – but each of those options leaves them precisely where they started: with no long-term funding for DHS, and Obama’s immigration orders untouched.

Unfortunately, much depends on John Boehner. The Speaker said at a press conference yesterday that “I don’t think anyone wants to shut down the Department of Homeland Security,” and if he means that then it’s going to be up to him to work out a way to get that funding passed. The problem he faces is that he’s in a no-win situation politically, which should feel pretty familiar to him by this point. If he holds firm with the conservatives and continues to insist that DHS funding be linked to the end of Obama’s immigration actions, he’ll provoke a politically damaging shutdown. If he caves and moves to pass a “clean” funding bill, DHS gets funded, but he’ll piss off his own caucus yet again.

Boehner has demonstrated absolutely no ability to wrangle in the hardline conservatives when it comes to fights over immigration, and if the past is any guide, he’ll probably try for as long as he can to maintain the fiction that there’s some way for the GOP to simultaneously fund Homeland Security and block the president’s actions on immigration, even though the party has zero leverage. The good news is that there’s a deadline looming, which historically has been the only thing that will actually motivate Boehner to act against the politically suicidal tendencies of his the GOP’s right flank and bow to the realities of competent stewardship of government.

The only way to guarantee that DHS gets funded – which, remember, is the stated priority of top Republican leaders – is to pass a clean funding bill with the support of Democrats. Conservatives in the House and Senate will revolt, but there should be enough moderate Republican and Democratic votes to get that bill to Obama’s desk, just as there were for the “Cromnibus.” All that remains to be seen is how long Republican leaders will maintain this posture of defiance before they bite the bullet and give in to the president.

Simon Maloy

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