Despite conservative groups and blogs blasting Mitch McConnell's "surrender," immigration hard-liners in the Senate appeared to wave their own white flags on Thursday, putting the Senate on the edge of a deal to fund the Homeland Security Department before Friday night's shutdown deadline.
With a deal to pass a clean DHS funding bill moving forward some time in the next two weeks no matter what they do, conservatives did not raise any objections to McConnell's strategy during a conference luncheon on Thursday.
Over tacos, Republicans discussed their options moving forward and exited the meeting largely optimistic that the DHS bill will clear the Senate by Friday evening, before the department shuts down at midnight that night. (Their optimism may have been helped by the fact that Sen. Bob Corker brought bottles of Jack Daniels to hand out to his fellow lawmakers, though it doesn't appear anyone cracked the seal during Thursday's meeting.)
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said he wasn't aware of any members in his caucus who would hold up the bill past Friday's deadline, but cautioned that no final deal had been struck.
The Senate will likely send over the clean DHS bill to the House on Friday and then begin work on separate legislation from Sen. Susan Collins to defund President Obama's executive action.
Prospects for both bills in the House are uncertain, with GOP leadership in that chamber now considering passage of a short-term continuing resolution to buy themselves more time. But what happens in the lower chamber is of little concern to senators who have had the DHS bill on their plates for two months.
"We've got to fund DHS and say to the House: 'Here's a straw so you can suck it up,'" Sen. Mark Kirk said.
Although Sens. Jeff Sessions and James Inhofe had been highly critical of McConnell's decision to pass a clean funding bill and voted against moving forward with that strategy on Wednesday, neither raised concerns about the legislation during Thursday's lunch, several Republican members said. Asked after the meeting whether he would hold up the bill through the weekend, Inhofe said emphatically, "No!"
"I don't look to have any unnecessary delays in this process," Sessions said, acknowledging that he will not hold up the bill, either. "I like to see what kind of [unanimous consent] we're looking at, but I think it's appropriate to move forward with the bill. … I'm not interested in delay merely for the sake of delay."
Based on conversations during the luncheon, half a dozen Republican members, including the GOP whip, said they did not believe any of their colleagues would hold up the bill.
Sessions and Inhofe follow on the heels of Sen. Ted Cruz, who has long called on the Senate to defund the president's executive action but who earlier this week said that he would not hold up the bill. Cruz didn't even attend Thursday's lunch, opting instead to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.
Kirk expressed frustration with the "hard-liners," including Sessions, who have pushed DHS so close to the precipice. "This battle should be the end of the strategy of attaching whatever you're upset with the president [about] to a vital piece of government," Kirk said.
Those concessions will allow Republicans, along with the cooperation of Democrats, to move much more quickly through the process of passing the DHS bill and sending it back to the House. Had Inhofe, Sessions, or another member objected—still a possibility—the process could have lasted through Sunday, forcing a two-day shutdown at DHS. Heading into the meeting, many Republican members thought that was likely.
But the prospect of spending the weekend in Washington with DHS shuttered was unpopular with the vast majority of members. And with Democrats on board, even members who object to McConnell's strategy could only have held up the bill, not prevented passage.