The most ominous development in the congressional showdown over Homeland Security funding and immigration came on Wednesday morning, when Speaker John Boehner made an odd admission to his House Republican troops: He hadn't spoken to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, in more than two weeks.
Funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires at midnight on Friday, but even as that deadline approached, the two top Republicans in Congress hadn't exchanged a word, much less agreed on a plan to resolve the impasse. A day earlier, McConnell had signaled he would cave to Democratic demands that he bring up a straightforward spending bill for DHS, stripped of the offending House-passed immigration provisions that had caused the standoff in the first place. Boehner's disclosure, made in a private GOP meeting and quickly passed on to reporters, was a way of showing angry House conservatives that he had played no part in McConnell's scheme.
Could it all be an exaggerated, good-cop-bad-cop routine? Sure. Aides to Boehner and McConnell have always insisted they work exceedingly well together, better even than previous GOP leadership pairs (most notably, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole in the mid-1990s). And when Boehner spoke to reporters on Wednesday, he noted that their staffs had been in contact, so it's not as if the speaker is ignorant of his Senate counterpart's machinations. Politically, the newly-elevated McConnell is in a stronger position within his conference than Boehner, who won re-election despite some two dozen GOP defections last month.
Yet the whole episode reeks of the one thing McConnell promised to fix when Republicans assumed the majority: dysfunction. "There's trouble in paradise," remarked Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, when he was asked about the lack of communication between Boehner and McConnell. Most Republicans have realized for weeks that the party would eventually have to fold, or at least punt, on the DHS funding fight. McConnell simply decided to move first, and end the standoff. As a token to conservatives, he announced the Senate would also advance a separate bill reversing President Obama's immigration actions. Split off from the DHS measure, though, that vote would be largely symbolic. Some Republicans had hoped that a Texas federal judge's ruling to block the president's policy would resolve the impasse in Congress, but conservatives say it merely emboldens them to stand their ground.
Senate Democrats, understandably suspicious of the GOP's motives, initially balked at McConnell's offer to have a clean vote and demanded Boehner's assurance that it would pass the House in time to avert a partial DHS shutdown. But after the speaker refused, Minority Leader Harry Reid relented, and Democrats dropped their filibuster of the House bill.
With the Senate now moving toward passage of a clean DHS measure ahead of Friday's deadline, the crucial decision once again falls to Boehner: Does he risk the wrath of conservatives by bringing up a spending bill that does nothing to stop Obama? Or does he try to fashion a stopgap measure that keeps the department fully functioning and buys Republicans a few more weeks? "If they send back a clean DHS bill, I don't see us passing it," Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana conservative, told me on Wednesday. "Our base wants us to fight."
Fleming predicted Boehner would pay a "huge political price" if he buckled to Democrats after vowing the House would fight Obama's immigration move "tooth and nail." Yet party leaders are well aware of polls showing that the public would blame the GOP if DHS shut down, just as voters faulted Republicans when the entire federal government shuttered in 2013. It's a reminder conservatives like Fleming are tired of hearing. "Republicans are blamed for anything that makes people unhappy," he said.