Speaker John Boehner on Thursday night finally laid out a plan to avert a partial shutdown of the Homeland Security Department: kick the can a little farther down the road. Yet even that may fail.
With just one day left until funding runs dry for DHS, Boehner urged his conference to pass a three-week extension of current funding and try to force Senate Democrats into a conference committee to resolve their differences. The only alternatives, he told his members behind closed doors, would be to let the department shut down or capitulate to the Senate by passing a clean full-year funding bill.
But passing the measure in the House will not be easy. Boehner's partial solution comes after a weeks-long deadlock, and he is stuck between angry conservatives adamant about blocking President Obama's executive action on immigration and moderates concerned about the politics of a shutdown.
After weeks of discord of their own, the Senate is slated to send a clean funding bill to the House on Friday, leaving funding the department up to the lower chamber. Despite conservative groups and blogs blasting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's "surrender," immigration hard-liners waved their own white flags on Thursday, allowing leaders to come to a deal to fund the department on a clean bill before Friday night's shutdown deadline. Now, House members are wary of being jammed by their Senate counterparts.
To head that off, the House will vote Friday to extend funding only through March 19 and move to conference their initial bill that rolled back several of Obama's immigration policies with the Senate-passed clean DHS bill. Boehner told his members in a hastily called private meeting Thursday night that doing so would maintain regular order and keep the fight over Obama's immigration executive action alive in the House while the issue also works its way through the courts. He also noted that it would allow the House to focus on next week's visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without a shutdown showdown spiraling the Capitol into chaos, according to sources in the room.
Members seemed somewhat receptive exiting the meeting, but it is clear leaders will need to convince their members to stick with them on the risky plan. Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul said asking for a conference committee would put pressure on Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who vowed Thursday to block a motion to appoint conferees by refusing it the 60 votes it would need to advance in the chamber.
"If they oppose a motion to go to conference, then they look like the obstructionists," McCaul said. "The only other option is to shut down the department, which we're not in favor of. This gives us a chance to put more pressure on the Senate Democrats and let the courts play it out and go to a conference."
Senate Democrats say going to conference is a nonstarter for the party. "The only point of a conference is to take a bill authored by Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate and load it up with more riders and tricks that would subsequently be rejected by the Senate anyway," a Democratic leadership aide said in an email.
Yet it is not clear the new plan can make it out of the House just yet, as it won't win over a contingent of rank-and-file conservatives who continue to say they won't vote for any bill that funds the president's actions on immigration. Rep. Jim Jordan, the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, challenged Boehner in the private meeting, telling leaders they should have messaged harder to blame Senate Democrats. Instead, Jordan said, they allowed the Senate to pocket the House-passed bill for weeks and jam the House with a clean measure.
"We told the voters this was the defining moment. We said "¦ we would make sure that no funds could be used in any way to carry out this unlawful action," Jordan said in an interview after the conference. "Is it our fault the Senate waited seven weeks to send us a bill?"
The House Freedom Caucus was slated to meet Thursday night to discuss leadership's newly proposed plan. If all roughly 30 members of the group refuse en masse to vote for leadership's short-term plan, Republican leaders could be in trouble. House Democrats are actively whipping their members against the bill, and if all Democrats refuse to support the latest gambit, GOP leaders can only afford to lose about 30 of their own votes if they expect to pass the measure with only Republicans.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said he does not plan to help Republicans advance a short-term measure. "They continue to construct cul-de-sacs for themselves, running into cul-de-sacs, dead ends, then we play this game all over again," a frustrated Hoyer said.
Still, some conservatives might be amenable to the plan. Rep. Matt Salmon, a Freedom Caucus member, said he was leaning toward voting for a the short-term measure, calling it "fair" and "reasonable." And in the conference meeting, Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Ted Yoho expressed support for the plan, according to sources in the room.
But leaders' jobs are complicated by the fact that Republican centrists too were balking. In the private meeting, Rep. Peter King, a former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, called some of his colleagues "delusional and self-righteous" for thinking they could force the president to roll back his executive action. He said he may vote against the short-term measure if it becomes a nonstarter in the Senate.
"We're supposed to be the party of national security," King said after the meeting. "I also said that, morally, it's wrong because we're putting an executive action on immigration on par with saving lives. If there's a terrorist attack, then they'll be responsible."
King's diatribe led to an awkward exchange near the House floor with Rep. Curt Clawson, a member of the Freedom Caucus, during which Clawson told King: "I'll vote my constituents, you vote yours."
Rep. Charlie Dent, who has been critical of GOP leaders' handling of the first two months of the 114th Congress, also blasted the new plan.
"I said in conference: 'Bad tactics yield bad outcomes. Self delusion yields self destruction,'" Dent said. "We've engaged up to this point in tactical malpractice, and at some point, we're going to vote on the negotiated Homeland Security Appropriations bill."
All along, Democrats have called for a clean DHS funding bill stripped of amendments to defund Obama's executive actions to provide temporary work permits and deportation deferrals to more than four million undocumented immigrants. For some Democrats, a short-term funding bill just won't do. It simply delays the inevitable, Rep. Raul Grijalva said, and simply buys time for House Republicans to "work out the craziness in that caucus."
"Do I feel bad that [DHS] will shut down? Yes, of course I do," Grijalva said. "But I don't think three weeks is going to buy any more [department] morale, and it certainly won't save the political decision that needs to made at the end of three weeks."
Democrats are itching to vote for a clean bill, which the Senate has proposed passing in a bipartisan fashion. "At this point," Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said, "there's no such thing as regular order in this House. It doesn't exist."
Still, other Democrats said they will reluctantly back the short-term plan. "I'm somebody who has a fairly consistent record of doing everything I can to avoid shutdowns, partial or otherwise," said Rep. Gerry Connolly—whose Northern Virginia district includes a huge number of federal workers. "So if my only choice is a clean, short-term funding bill, obviously I would support that."
Meanwhile, the Senate will take up Sen. Susan Collins's bill to defund Obama's executive action immediately after passing the DHS bill on Friday, but it's unlikely to pass. Democrats have said they will not consent to moving forward with the immigration measure until after a clean DHS bill has made it to Obama's desk, leaving McConnell six votes shy as he seeks to move forward with the defunding measure.
Once DHS has been funded, Democrats say they will give McConnell the 60 votes necessary to begin debate on the Collins bill. But what's less clear is whether six or more Democrats will vote to end debate, allowing Republicans to pass the legislation. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has said he will vote with Republicans on the issue.
Senate Democrats were tight-lipped Thursday evening about the House's new strategy to pass a three-week continuing resolution, but it's likely that such a measure would pass the Senate, even if Reid later objects to going to conference. Democrats do not want to leave town on Friday with the possibility of a DHS shutdown on the table.
Alex Brown contributed to this article
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Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.