Mitch McConnell gave conservatives their shot Tuesday—a vote on a tough bill that would roll back President Obama's immigration policies. Now he has a choice to make.
A House-passed Department of Homeland Security funding bill failed to overcome a procedural vote, getting only 51 of the 60 votes needed to stay alive in the Senate. The measure would block Obama's executive action on immigration and place "Dreamers" and millions of other immigrants back at risk of deportation.
The vote sets up McConnell's biggest test so far as the newly minted Senate majority leader. He'll have to try to cobble together a new coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to pass a DHS funding bill before the Feb. 27 deadline to avoid a department shutdown. Whether he'll move forward that way, however, or continue going head-to-head with the White House is a question neither he nor his fellow Republicans can answer yet.
Sen. John McCain said he has personally sat in on "at least 20 discussions" about how to proceed when the House bill inevitably failed.
"Nobody really has a strategy yet, I am sorry to say," McCain said. "I have heard about 300 options, none of them so far viable."
A united Senate Democratic caucus stood against the House-passed bill Tuesday, making it impossible to overcome the 60-vote threshold McConnell needed. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada was the only Republican defection on the bill.
The bill was never expected to pass, but McConnell was embarking on a tactic that House Speaker John Boehner has used across the Capitol many times.
McConnell gave conservatives like Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas what they asked for: a vote to defund Obama's executive action. The vote gave Republicans an opportunity to be opposed on-record to the president's power grab. But the next step will be much harder for McConnell. He will have to recalibrate conservative wishes with the political reality: Republicans captured the majority, but they don't have the votes they need to move forward without Democrats' help.
McConnell will either have to find another way to fund DHS or shut down an agency that secures the border and employs America's top cops. The majority leader's predicament looks a lot like those Boehner has dealt with over and over again since he became speaker in 2011. From the farm bill to funding measures, Boehner has grown accustomed to first appeasing his conference, falling short of the votes needed, and then being forced to tune out conservative screeches to pass crucial bills.
McConnell's office says that he will try for a second time this week to pass the DHS bill on Thursday. The office says that the language decrying the executive action will still be attached.
"I think we'll give them an opportunity to vote on that more than once," said GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. "Trying to use the procedural rules to keep from [considering the bill] is a disservice to the people who care deeply about this issue on both sides."
The idea of making Senate Democrats vote again is popular with House conservatives like Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina.
"You're telling me there's no Democrats in purple states for whom this isn't a tough vote? "¦ Where's the grassroots in those states calling their senator saying, 'Why'd you do this today?'" Mulvaney said. "Political pressure builds. ... Just to fail on one cloture vote and throw their hands up and say it's back in the House? No. We did our work, it's time for them to do theirs."
That scenario could yield a kind of congressional Groundhog Day, with senators forced to vote repeatedly for legislation that is stuck in the chamber and doomed to be discarded if it somehow makes it to the president's desk.
But that is the fight some Republicans were looking for. Sessions and Cruz have sometimes been accused of meddling in House business. And Boehner challenged them at his presser Tuesday to stand up for what they believe in.
"It's time for Senator Cruz and Senator Sessions, and Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats, to stand together with the American people and block the president's actions," Boehner said.
Sessions said that if Republicans don't back down, they can build the narrative that Democrats are the ones standing in the way of the funding bill, not Republicans.
"The House has done its duty. It has funded Homeland Security with $40 billion in funding and it just simply says the president can't take money that was authorized, appropriated to enforce law, to undermine law," Sessions said. "If there is any problem with funding Homeland Security, it is a direct result of Democrats' obstruction."
GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who says he has not spent extensive time focused on the DHS funding bill, said that over the years he's learned sometimes it's better to pass clean bills.
"It's a serious thing, but on the other hand if they are loading it up with things that shouldn't be in there, then you have one choice and that is to say, 'Get that stuff off or we are not voting for it,'" Hatch said.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson was spotted in the Capitol meeting with lawmakers and trying to build more support for a no-frills funding bill for his agency.
"I am here to talk to any senators on both sides of the aisle who are willing to listen to me," Johnson said.
With the failure of the bill, Democrats are calling on McConnell to simply remove the contentious immigration language and proceed. They recognize he's got a lot to lose by ignoring the wishes of some in his right flank.
"He is being pushed and pulled by Ted Cruz on one side ... and those on the other side of his caucus who say, 'We are supposed to show responsible governance here,'" Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said. "This is a moment where he gets to be majority leader."
McConnell has built his reputation as a politically savvy and pragmatic leader. Many within his party are confident that as leader, McConnell will weigh his options and then make the hard call even if it means risking damaging relationships with some of the most vocal conservatives and Republicans across the country who wanted the GOP-controlled Senate to stand up more boldly against the president.
"Senator McConnell does everything he can to take into account the feelings of the caucus in general, but at the same time, he's pretty prone to not want to end up in a boxed canyon. And again, he can count," Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said. "You've got to figure out how to get to a place that resolves the issue. He's one of the best at that that I know."
Adding to McConnell's pressures are the optics of failing to fully fund DHS when Americans are keenly aware of the growing terrorism threats from groups like the Islamic State. The Obama administration is hoping that sense of urgency will force McConnell to stare down a handful of conservatives and pass a funding bill sooner rather than later.
"This is trying times right now, and we need a clean appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security," Johnson said.
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this article