On Friday afternoon, just a few short hours before the Department Homeland Security was set to shut down, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives scheduled a vote to grant DHS three more weeks of funding. The idea was to buy John Boehner some time to do… something. The legislative impasse that led us to the precipice of the shutdown was created by Boehner, who passed a bill tying DHS appropriations to the rollback of President Obama’s immigration executive actions. He spent several weeks insisting that the House had “done its job” and would not pass any new legislation funding DHS. But Senate Republicans and Democrats came together to pass a clean DHS funding bill, which forced Boehner to once again act. Rather than bow to political reality and take the only route available to him to actually fund the agency, Boehner opted to prolong the agony and punt.
And he couldn’t even do that. The three-week continuing resolution failed when over 50 conservative Republicans voted against it, rebuking Boehner and the leadership and sending the entire process into utter chaos with less than half a day remaining until the shutdown.
As has happened so many times over the last four years, the rest of the Congressional leadership was impelled to overcome Boehner’s incompetence and cobble together a last-minute solution. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid pushed a one-week CR through the Senate late Friday night, and Nancy Pelosi instructed House Democrats to support its passage, with the promise from Boehner that the House would pass a clean, long-term DHS funding bill this week. The one-week bill passed with the overwhelming support of Democrats, and Obama signed it.
So, for all intents and purposes, the House minority leader was calling the shots last Friday, determining which legislation would pass and mapping out future votes. Boehner was along for the ride, keeping a low profile with the rest of the Republican leadership while the Democrats held press briefings sketching out the way forward. It’d be embarrassing enough of this had never happened before, but it’s getting difficult to keep track of how many times Pelosi has had to bail out Boehner. That it is still happening despite the fact that Boehner is now sitting on one of the largest Congressional majorities in decades is about as damning an indictment of his speakership as one could ask for.
And that spells real trouble going forward. The story of the first two months of the all-Republican Congress has been complete dysfunction and the inability to perform the rudimentary tasks of government. The Republicans are fighting amongst themselves and venting obvious frustration with Boehner’s shambolic approach to governing. On Friday night, McConnell passed the one-week CR and then immediately adjourned the Senate for the weekend – putting all the pressure to act on Boehner and sending a clear message that he’s done with this fight. Earlier in the day, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) pleaded with House Republicans to stop the madness. “Hopefully we're gonna end the attaching of bullshit to essential items of the government,” he said.
But the DHS finding fight is just the first test of basic governance confronting the Republican Congress. Sometime later this year the U.S. is going to bump up against the debt limit, and there’s an excellent chance that the debt limit renewal will coincide with the next appropriations fight (the “Cromnibus,” passed last December, only funded government operations through this September). The difficulty the Republicans have had working in concert to fund a single department doesn’t bode well for a combination debt limit/government funding showdown (with the attendant threats of default and shutdown).
But before we even get to that point, there’s a chance the Republican Congress will have to deal with the potentially catastrophic fallout from the King v. Burwell decision. If the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies in 37 states, Republicans will be under intense pressure to do something to mitigate the damage. Can anyone credibly argue that Congress is up to the task when the Speaker of the House has little to no control over one-fifth of his caucus?
And, of course, the DHS funding fight still has to be resolved. Congress bought themselves an extra week, and Democrats agreed to the extension with the thinking that cold political logic and a sense of self-preservation will finally push Boehner to give in and fund the agency without strings. But Boehner’s capacity for illogical and irrational behavior is why they’re in this situation to begin with. Boehner will eventually cave, but there’s no guarantee when that will happen.
And really this fight never should have happened in the first place. From the moment of its inception, the Republican strategy was bound to fail. But the leaders in both houses of Congress plowed ahead because they had no idea what else to do, and now they’re being dragged along as the Democrats push through last-minute legislative patches to keep the lights on at DHS. There are a lot of words to describe that process, but “governance” is not one of them.