House Republicans narrowly cleared a major hurdle Thursday morning in their race for the exits, winning a key procedural vote on a massive spending bill to keep the government afloat. But with the hours ticking away before a possible government shutdown, they remained unsure whether they could pass the bigger measure.
Passage of the rule governing debate for the "CROmnibus" bill by a razor-thin 214-212 margin means that the measure could come up for a final vote later Thursday, though Republican leaders temporarily recessed the House Thursday afternoon as they hunted for more support.
If necessary, the House and Senate would likely pass a two-day spending resolution Thursday night. But with the possibility still looming that the government would shut down at midnight, the White House stepped up its lobbying of members to support the omnibus bill and the Office of Management and Budget held a conference call with federal agencies to discuss contingency planning.
"We continue to believe that time remains for Congress to pass full-year appropriations for FY 2015, and prevent a government shutdown," an OMB official said. "However, out of an abundance of caution, we are working with agencies and taking steps to prepare for all contingencies, including a potential lapse in funding."
Leaders of both parties huddled with their members in groups large and small Thursday afternoon and evening, trying to gauge support for the spending bill that is so big it has provisions disliked by everyone.
The rule passed earlier Thursday only after two Republicans, Reps. Kerry Bentivolio and Marlin Stutzman, were persuaded by leaders to switch their votes from no to yes. Every Democrat voted against the rule, but several are expected to back the underlying bill. Still, GOP leaders are considering a fallback plan to bring up a shorter continuing resolution if the larger bill fails to pass Thursday.
That fallback measure could last just until next week, offering GOP leaders time to formulate a new strategy. Or, one Republican aide said, it could last a full three months and push the entire spending package into the 114th Congress, when the party will control both chambers of Congress.
"We expect the bill to pass with bipartisan support today, but if it does not, we will pass a short-term CR to avoid a government shutdown," Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, said Thursday morning. "The length and other details of that bill have not been determined."
Asked about the spending bill GOP leaders might bring up if the omnibus fails, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy avoided answering the question. "Why do Democrats want to shut down the government?" he asked.
Boehner was more dramatic later Thursday morning, telling reporters: "If we don't get finished today, we're going to be here until Christmas. You all know how this process works."
Thursday's rule vote was a barometer of how much trouble party whips will have in corralling the votes to pass the omnibus. House Republicans are predicting that floor action will be finished by early afternoon, including a vote on a two-day CR to keep the government open through the weekend so the Senate can complete its work. (If the omnibus fails, then the House would move a CR that lasts longer than two days.)
The White House gave the omnibus bill a key boost Thursday, announcing that the Obama administration supports its passage despite "the inclusion of ideological and special interest riders" as well as the decision to offer only short-term funding for the Department of Homeland Security. That cover from President Obama should make it easier for at least some congressional Democrats to back the measure. The White House has also been calling House Democrats about the bill, according to sources.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at Thursday's press briefing that if the bill reaches Obama's desk, "he will sign it."
Still, opposition has accumulated since the Tuesday night unveiling of a spending bill that would keep the government funded through the fall, narrowing the already tight window that party whips have to round up support for the must-pass bill. House Republican aides have estimated that as many as 70 GOP lawmakers would vote against final passage of the omnibus, mostly driven by discontent that it does not directly attempt to block Obama's executive action that will grant work visas to millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
The pending rule vote was causing the most nervousness early Thursday among House Republican leaders, during a closed-door meeting.
Boosting the anxiety was a call published on the conservative RedState blog for GOP members who oppose the underlying bill to also oppose the rule.
"If a Republican opposes the continuing resolution, s/he must oppose the rule," stated the item. "Call your congressman and tell him to oppose the rule on the CRomnibus."
But Bentivolio said he was convinced to change his vote by the argument that voting down the rule would have ceded leverage to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"I was the first one to vote no as a protest vote because I don't support amnesty," he said in a phone interview. "But when I realized that we were about to give Nancy Pelosi the floor, I said to hell with that and changed my vote."
Bentivolio, who lost reelection in a primary earlier this year, said he still plans to vote against the CRomnibus, however, and predicted that leadership will end up having to pass a short-term CR.
"Merry Christmas to 'em. They'll have to deal with it in the next Congress," he said.