Boehner running out of options as DHS shutdown looms

Willie Grace | 2/26/2015, 5:43 p.m.
Congress remains at an impasse over funding the agency, which is set to shut down on Friday. That would put ...
Speaker Boehner Press Conference

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Speaker John Boehner has been here before -- wedged between his hard-right flank and the Senate.

How he handles the looming showdown over a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security could dictate the rest of his speakership, as House conservatives warn compromising now means he's effectively allowing Democrats to block GOP agenda for the next two years. Doing something that angers his right flank could again raise questions about his ability to lead the Republican conference.

Congress remains at an impasse over funding the agency, which is set to shut down on Friday. That would put thousands of workers on furlough without pay and while Obama administration officials say short-term security impacts will be minimal, they warn of potential issues in the long-term.

At issue are policy constraints added to the funding bill that would limit President Barack Obama's immigration actions: House conservatives insist on including the restrictions, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not been able to get them passed and is promising a vote on a funding-only measure.

House Republicans are meeting Thursday evening to discuss a vote on a short-term funding bill that would extend current funding levels for less than a month. But that approach means this fight will continue as the two sides to fight over immigration policy.

Over and over on Thursday, Boehner repeated his mantra -- the House had done its job and it was up to the Senate to act. After being pressed by a reporter to explain his end game the speaker blew kisses -- a gesture familiar to the Hill press corps from a joking Boehner when he is signaling he's not going to answer a question.

"Democrats are using Homeland Security funding for blackmail to protect the actions of the President," he said, insisting the GOP was united. "

Even as he and McConnell pursue completely different strategies to address the impending funding lapse, Boehner insisted the GOP is on the same page.

"It is not a fight amongst Republicans. All Republicans agree we want to fund the Department of Homeland Security and we want to stop the President's executive action with regard to immigration," he said.

But McConnell did split with Boehner earlier this week when he agreed to Democrats' demands to drop provisions that were attached to the House-passed spending bill that blocked the President's executive actions on immigration.

The Senate is expected to approve that so-called "clean" funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security by Friday, dropping the issue back in Boehner's lap. Many House conservatives are angry that McConnell gave into Democrats and want to hold the line when it comes to the administration's immigration policies.

Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp took a swipe at the GOP leader's move, saying, "it put the surrender caucus in charge of the Senate and Harry Reid is still in charge."

With two days left before the deadline, multiple House Republicans admitted to CNN they had no idea what the next step would be, and they were awaiting word from Boehner and his top lieutenants. House GOP members were scheduled to meet Thursday evening to discuss their options. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has told members to be prepared for stay for late night votes and to remain flexible.

Some Republicans are urging the House to point to the recent ruling by a Texas judge to suspend the administration's program to process visas for those wanting to remain in the country.

"The courts have acted. Accept the victor that the courts have given us, which is the President does not have the authority to do what he has done and vote to continue to fund the Department of Homeland Security. I think that is the right decision," Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyoming, said on CNN on Thursday.

There is some discussion among House Republicans about responding to the Senate with a new funding bill that would tie DHS money to the court's move to block the program. But Boehner maintained that the legislative branch needed to respond to what he argued was an effort by the President to circumvent their authority.

"The courts have stopped the President's executive action, at least temporarily. But having said that, I think there's a role for Congress to play in defending the Constitution and upholding the rule of law. And we intend to do that," Boehner said.

Some conservatives have said they don't feel any pressure to fund the agency before the deadline because most workers would still be required to come to work. Huelskamp told CNN employees at the agency just got paid last week so there is enough time to debate the issue before they need to approve continued funding, even on a short term basis.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson dismissed that notion and told reporters in between his visits with members, "that minimizes the impact of forcing people to work without a paycheck" and said he continues to press for "full funding."

The two top congressional Democrats -- Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi -- argued against anything other than passing a clean bill.

"If they send over a bill with all the riders in it they've shut down the government. We are not going to play games. We've been working for a month to come up with a clear funding proposal the President can sign," Reid said.

Reid and Pelosi also argued against a short term bill, saying it would hamper the agency's ability to plan and respond to emergencies, but the stopped short of saying they would vote against one.

The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters he would support a short term funding bill -- like a week or so -- if that is all the House could pass but said it's not the preferred way to do it.

"Then we're back into this again and again and that, to me, is not desirable, Cornyn said.

Despite Boehner's efforts to keep the pressure on the Senate, the focus is squarely on him and how he balances pressure from those on the right who oppose any compromise, and other members who want to avoid being tagged with the blame for another shutdown at a time the GOP is proving it can govern.

When asked if he was concerned about his leadership role, an unfazed Boehner brushed off the question, saying, "No. Heaven sakes, no. Not at all."

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