Republicans Scramble for DHS Votes, Without Democrats' Help
GOP pulls the No Child Left Behind bill from floor schedule as leaders put out fires on the DHS front.
House Republican leaders were putting out fires on multiple fronts on Friday, as the House recessed temporarily in the afternoon to give the GOP more time to gather support for a measure temporarily putting off a funding lapse for the Homeland Security Department. The chamber came back into session at 2:20 p.m. and immediately began a cycle of floor votes on the DHS measure.
Republican leaders' search for votes for the DHS bill became serious enough that they decided to scratch from Friday's schedule the other bill set to be considered—a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education measure. That bill was also proving to be a tough sell within the GOP conference: Conservatives objected to reauthorizing a large federal program, while state interests were putting significant pressure on members, particularly those from Florida, New Jersey, and New York.
Though members were cautiously optimistic about the DHS measure coming out of a conference meeting Thursday night, the long delay portends trouble for a stopgap bill that would extend funding until March 19. Leaders have already lost a sizable contingent of conservatives, who believe that President Obama's executive action on immigration has plunged the nation into a constitutional crisis and who refuse to vote for any measure funding the agency tasked with implementing the action.
Yet a larger circle of disillusioned members—including some centrists—has emerged as well, and leadership sources, although they insist that passage is within grasp, have found the target number of votes to pass the bill so far elusive. Democrats are not making the task any easier for their GOP counterparts.
If House Republicans can't pass a short-term funding bill for the Homeland Security Department, Democrats think they'll have the leverage to force Speaker John Boehner to fund the agency for the full year. The problem: Their plan relies on the logic of the House Republicans whose judgment they've questioned all week.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is telling her members to vote against Republicans' three-week bill to fund DHS, a rare step to oppose a "clean" shutdown-aversion measure. That's because the Senate has passed a full-year funding bill—one Democrats much prefer—and Pelosi thinks Boehner will be forced to take up the Senate bill if his short-term CR goes down. "If this were to fail, they would have no choice but to take up the Senate bill," she said in her Friday press conference.
Passage of the long-term bill would come with largely Democratic votes, and the ire of much of Boehner's caucus. But Democrats are convinced that the speaker can't afford to let the agency shut down, and they're willing to put that theory to the test. "If the [CR] goes down here, I think there will be great pressure and justification for Speaker Boehner saying to his people, 'We tried and it went down, and we're now going to pass [the Senate] bill,' " House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said in an interview.
Of course, if Republicans have the votes on their own side to pass the CR, this strategy will be largely academic. Both Pelosi and Hoyer concede that passage is likely, even with Democratic opposition.
But, in the event that enough Republicans decide they can't support the short-term bill, Boehner will be forced to let DHS shut down or allow a vote on the long-term bill. That's what Democrats are hoping for. "I don't think we'll leave here without funding the Department of Homeland Security for a period of time," Hoyer said. "The only reasonable alternative they would have would be to bring the bill passed out of the United States Senate."
After weeks of calling Republicans unreasonable—and cowardly—Democrats are now counting on them seeing the light of that "reasonable alternative." It appears they're mostly united in that stance. Most Democrats approached Thursday about the CR said they were still undecided about the measure, but by Friday morning many said they were prepared to vote against it.
Rep. Jim Langevin, who Thursday said he was leaning toward a yes vote, said Friday he is now undecided. Members such as Hoyer and Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Don Beyer, whose suburban Washington districts contain a high number of federal workers, nevertheless plan to vote against the CR.
"We're surveying our members to see where they stand, and it appears that an overwhelming number are opposed to the CR," said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield, as House Democrats began whipping the bill Thursday night.
Before the whip operation sprung into action, members sounded legitimately torn on whether to support the bill. "I don't want to see it shut down, but I think that running the Department of Homeland Security for two months, three weeks at a time is absolutely irresponsible," said Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond. "Teachers do lesson plans longer than that."
Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy said he was awaiting more details before he made up his mind, but he lamented the process that led up to this point. "Everyone's talked about the threat it would be to the homeland if Homeland Security were to shut down, but just in general the politics around this to me is frustrating," he said.
The issue could be especially thorny for swing-district members like Murphy. Democrats have said for months that any DHS shutdown would leave the country vulnerable to a terrorist attack, and voting against a measure—even a short-term one—that would avert such a shutdown will surely invite GOP attacks if DHS funding runs out at midnight.
Democratic leaders won't say how hard they're pressing members to oppose the CR, especially since they believe Republicans will be able to pass it on their own. Still if that's not the case, anything short of near-unanimous buy-in from the Democratic caucus could allow the bill to cross the finish line anyway. "I think the Republicans probably have the votes for this, and so if any Democrats join them, that's not the point," Pelosi said. Still, she added, "I don't want Democrats to give them the victory." She went on to note the political perils her members were weighing as they made their decisions.
Hoyer, meanwhile, said his team has not yet counted votes on the bill.
If it does indeed fail, all eyes will turn to Boehner—and Democrats believe he will finally break. "If there's any sanity left in the world, we will see a vote on a clean bill," said Rep. John Yarmuth.
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