House Republican leaders and rank-and-file conservatives are engaged in a silent standoff about how to proceed on funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
In front of the cameras they are on the same page: Speaker John Boehner and hard-line conservatives alike pin the blame for any potential partial shutdown of DHS squarely on Democrats. But with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell telling the House GOP in private meetings—and through the press—that his chamber cannot pass a DHS funding bill, members are scrambling to find an alternative strategy.
Time to resolve the standoff is short: The department's funding lapses at month's end.
Centrist-leaning members have urged House leaders to bring up a bill funding the department that is devoid of the contentious policy riders rolling back President Obama's executive actions on immigration. Leaders have been reticent to even publicly entertain the idea, but hard-line members are starting to worry that under pressure from Democrats, the Senate, and the public, leaders will hold a vote on a clean DHS funding bill or a continuing resolution.
As a result, a group of conservative members is privately considering blocking any bill funding DHS without the immigration riders. The House Freedom Caucus—a new, secretive cadre of conservatives—is considering taking a stand against any procedural motion that would allow leaders to bring a clean DHS funding bill to the floor, according to several sources associated with the group.
"The option is on the conservatives' table," Rep. Tim Huelskamp said. "There would be a serious effort to not approve the rule. "¦ I'm pretty confident we'd have more than 30 Republicans vote against a rule."
Conservatives have said so before with dubious results. But after it was discussed in a Tuesday meeting of the group, sources noted that this effort may be different, citing the near-failure to pass a rule for the so-called "CRomnibus" late last year and the House Freedom Caucus' bylaws, which state that if some 80 percent of the group decides to vote one way, members risk expulsion for voting differently.
"It's always been a component of the Freedom Caucus that you might be asked to vote against the rule," said one member of the group, speaking anonymously to discuss internal group dynamics.
Leaders have been trying to head off this kind of infighting. Two members of the conservative group—Reps. Jeff Duncan and Ron DeSantis—already quit the GOP whip team after Majority Whip Steve Scalise made it known he will more strictly enforce party unity on procedural votes.
Now, at least some committee chairmen are following suit. For instance, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop confirmed Thursday that he told his committee at an organizational meeting this week that if subcommittee chairs vote against measures such as procedural motions, they should relinquish their chairmanships.
Rule votes require near unanimous party loyalty because the opposition party almost always votes against them. If a rule fails, the chamber immediately recesses until another legislative option can be presented. In that case, Republicans would either have to seek Democratic support for another rule or craft a strategy in the Rules Committee that would allow them to proceed to a vote without a rule. Neither option, however, would be politically savvy for the GOP.
"I don't think John Boehner could withstand it," said one conservative House member, speaking anonymously to talk about potential repercussions for leadership. The member said that the "energy and vitriol" from conservative activists and constituents would make it difficult for the speaker to maintain his credibility if he went that route.
Meanwhile, the Senate will vote on the House-passed DHS funding bill for the fourth time on the Monday after next week's recess, but it is not expected to pass as Democrats continue to vote against it. House members have been urging McConnell to change Senate rules to pass the bill. But, publicly and privately, he has said he will not.
In a private meeting with Scalise and some of his top whips Thursday morning, McConnell was questioned about why he will not invoke the so-called nuclear option to change Senate rules to allow bills to pass with a simple majority. He said that, having been in both the majority and the minority, he would be unwilling to do away with the chamber's strong minority rights, according to a member who attended the meeting.
Other members are exploring still other options to move past the DHS funding stalemate. In a private meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday, Rep. Marlin Stutzman questioned whether the conference could use budget reconciliation to target President Obama's immigration actions. The plan would require a short-term continuing resolution to punt DHS funding into later in the year, when the chambers pass a budget.
"This is a budgetary issue," Stutzman said. "I'm just asking the question: Why don't we set it up to do it under budget reconciliation?"
But because of the specific requirements of the budgetary maneuver, other members are skeptical it would work. And the party has been considering using the procedure to pass either tax reform or a repeal of Obama's health care law.
This story has been updated to specify when the Senate will next vote on the DHS funding bill.
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.