All eyes on House as DHS shutdown looms

Willie Grace | 2/27/2015, 4:08 p.m.
Boehner is having trouble getting enough votes to pass a three week extension for funding of the Department of Homeland ...
Speaker Boehner Press Conference

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

Boehner is having trouble getting enough votes to pass a three week extension for funding of the Department of Homeland Security, and has put the House is in recess on Friday afternoon.

GOP leaders are as of Friday afternoon huddling in the Speaker's office trying to sort out whether they can get enough votes to approve the measure. House conservatives want to continue fighting to block the President Barack Obama's actions on immigration and want to go to conference to work out differences between the House GOP bill and the Senate Bill passed bill earlier Friday.

A bloc of moderate House Republicans who back passing the clean DHS funding bill from the Senate are balking at voting on setting up a conference committee to hammer out the differences between these two bills.

But because Democrats are opposing the short term bill Boehner now needs support from both camps in the GOP conference to pass the short term bill.

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.

The Senate also approved a longer-term funding bill Friday even though it will be ignored by the House.

On a 68-31 bipartisan vote, the Senate cleared a so-called "clean" DHS bill, after stripping of provisions opposed by Democrats that would have blocked President Barack Obama's recent executive orders on immigration.

But the measure will be dead on arrival in the House, where conservatives are angry the Senate dropped the immigration provisions. The House will approve the short-term bill instead in order to keep fighting on the immigration issue.

The Senate is expected to clear a similar three-week bill later in the day, assuring the agency will stay open.

Congress looked like it was at an impasse over funding the agency, which is set to shut down 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 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.

Thursday evening, Boehner outlined a plan at a closed-door caucus meeting to vote on Friday on a clean three-week funding bill for DHS, according to two House Republicans who attended the meeting. The speaker said this would give House Republicans more time to press for a conference with the Senate on their bill and the clean funding measure the Senate is expected to send over.

But Reid said earlier Thursday that a conference was a non-starter for Democrats, and the GOP would need to get 60 votes for a conference committee to actually happen.

Several conservatives spoke up at the meeting against the plan, arguing it would approve money for a program they believe is unconstitutional.

Earlier in the day, 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."

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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