GOP's big shutdown dilemma: Will Boehner get embarrassed again?

The best option for Mitch McConnell may be to throw John Boehner to the wolves. Here's why

Published February 23, 2015 6:12PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Everyone join me in giving a hand to the 114th Congress, who have bravely returned to work after a week's recess. So what's on the agenda? Well they have until the end of the week to figure out how to fund the Department of Homeland Security, and they have no plan yet, so that's going to be a whole thing.

They like operating on deadline. Or should we put it: it's the only way they can operate. Deadlines "focus the mind," as all politicians (and journalists) know. Just when there doesn't seem like an idea, one suddenly pops up when your back is against the wall. The nation awaits this next eureka moment. (Not really. Most people have no idea that appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security will lapse at the end of the week.)

The House-passed DHS appropriations bill, eliminating the Obama administration's 2012 and 2014 deportation deferral programs, has been filibustered by Senate Democrats -- and one Republican, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller -- three times. It hasn't even come close to getting 60 votes, as even the more conservative Democrats who allege to have problems with the executive actions have held the line with minority leader Harry Reid. Three times up, three times filibustered. That means there's only one thing Mitch McConnell can do, and that's... bring it up for a fourth vote today? That Mitch McConnell, he's such a genius master of arcane parliamentary tactics, like spending three or four weeks bringing up the same failed bill to fail over and over again. Yes, it gives him the "Democrats voted to block funding for DHS four times!" talking point, but the man who promised that there would be no shutdowns under his watch is going to need more than that.

The usual treasonous RINO sellouts in the Senate, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are urging the party to take the "escape hatch" afforded them last week by a judge in Texas, who placed an injunction on the implementation of Obama's most recent deportation executive action. In other words: pass a "clean" DHS bill, sans immigration riders, and let the courts to perform the dirty work of dismembering King Obama's edict. The problem, though, is that where the likes of McCain, Graham, and other less tactically aggressive Republican senators see an "escape hatch," conservative hard-liners see further proof that they need to use the appropriations process to finish off these programs once and for all.

And that's why this latest suggestion, floated by Senate Republican aides to The Hill, may not be the panacea the GOP's hoping materializes, but will at least reapportion blame from the Senate back to the House hotheads:

They are considering a plan in which they would split off legislation attacking President Obama’s executive action on immigration from funding for DHS, according to a Senate GOP aide familiar with the discussions. [...]

“There’s another angle we’re going to try to approach on it,” said a Senate Republican aide. “The goal is to bring up the issue of executive amnesty and have a determination of just that issue.

“We would try to have a vote on just that issue,” the aide added. “Does it have to be addressed as part of DHS, or can it be addressed separately? If we can get to that issue and have a vote on that issue, then you come back to DHS appropriations.

The mechanics of this aren't entirely clear. Since spending bills have to originate in the House, and the House has no interest in passing a new bill, this would require breaking the filibuster to "get on" the House-passed bill so as to sever it into separate parts. Perhaps McConnell and Reid would make some sort of handshake agreement beforehand about how this would all play out. And it could work out best for McConnell and Reid the same way it's worked out for them in the past: by sticking all the pressure on John Boehner.

Want to have a stand-alone vote to undo Obama's executive actions, and then vote on DHS appropriations separately? Please, by all means. And hey, if those half-dozen or so conservative Senate Democrats want to vote against the president on that stand-alone executive actions vote, they can feel free. Obama can just veto it and it won't matter, because it won't be tied to government funding.

This is not the first time that Hill staffers have considered the idea that you can hold separate votes on Obama's executive actions and DHS funding. You vote on this thing, and then you vote on that thing! It's just an admission of defeat that sells out your leverage and infuriates conservatives.

Senate Republicans are willing to sell out, because it's getting to be cover-your-ass time here. They can sever the immigration riders from the DHS bill send 'em back to the House, at which point DHS funding becomes John Boehner's problem again. He will complain that he doesn't have the votes to pass a "clean" DHS bill, by which he'll mean that he doesn't want to rely on Democratic votes to pass it. And then, as usual, it's his decision to either let funding lapse or further erode his standing with conservatives.

Deadlines do focus the mind in Congress. In particular, they focus Mitch McConnell's mind. The answer to the question "Should I just screw over Boehner and wash my hands of this?" comes into clear focus: Yup!

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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