House Speaker John Boehner told a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday that he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hadn't spoken in two weeks, even as the two men have pursued clashing strategies ahead of a possible Homeland Security Department shutdown on Friday.
House conservatives are furious at McConnell after his announcement Tuesday that his chamber would move toward voting for a clean DHS funding bill, along with a separate measure blocking President Obama's executive actions on immigration. And the subtext of Boehner's comment, according to members and staff present, was an assurance to his conference that the two leaders are not cutting a backroom deal behind conservatives' backs.
"Our staffs have been talking back and forth. But at the end of the day, the Senate has to act," Boehner told reporters, when asked about the comment after the conference meeting. "I dont know what the Senate is capable of passing, and until I see what they're going to pass, no decisions have been made on the House side."
Boehner and McConnell eventually did meet Wednesday afternoon. But Boehner's comment underscores the tensions between the two leaders, who are each grappling with their own legislative realities. For pragmatic McConnell, a shutdown is out of the question. For Boehner, however, who is fighting to hold an unruly conference in line, keeping his right flank satisfied is key to keeping his speakership.
"Until the Senate does something, we're in a wait-and-see mode," Boehner said.
For several members, McConnell's move Tuesday raised the question of whether he and Boehner were coordinating their plans or whether the Senate leader was just moving ahead on his own. McConnell spokesman Mike Brumas said his boss and Boehner had not met since before last week's recess, but that their staffs speak every day, including before McConnell's Tuesday announcement.
Still, Rep. Pete King, a New York Republican, said he was "a little surprised" after hearing from Boehner that the two highest-ranking Republicans were not even speaking.
"We cannot allow DHS not to be funded. People think we are crazy," King said. "There are terrorist attacks all over the world."
Behind closed doors at Wednesday's conference meeting, several members spoke in favor of keeping DHS fully funded. To underscore the agency's importance, Rep. Pat Meehan told his colleagues that, as a U.S. attorney confirmed within days of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he stood in the wreckage of the Pentagon where an airplane had been flown into the building.
House DHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Carter, who was a county judge before coming to Congress, made note of the legal challenge to Obama's latest executive action. He suggested the House allow the issue to wend its way through the courts, especially since a Texas judge forced the administration to delay its plans to implement the action.
Some members in Boehner's inner-circle have subscribed to that view. Rep. Steve Stivers, for instance, said that he could get on board with McConnell's two-bill approach.
"If they come together, I think that is something I'd consider for sure," Stivers said. "I think we won in court, and I think we'll continue to win in court."
But Boehner has to contend with much opposition from his right flank, and it is not yet clear whether he would abandon those conservatives to pass a clean funding bill with Democratic help. Several members, notably ones in the House Freedom Caucus, continue to be adamant that they will not support a clean DHS funding bill on the House floor and are emboldened by the Texas judge's decision to block Obama from implementing the executive action.
"I think there's lots of members who are like me who understand the president's actions are unconstitutional, so how can you fund something that is unconstitutional and that a federal judge said is unlawful?" said Rep. Jim Jordan, the leader of the House Freedom Caucus.
Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican, said many in the conference feel that McConnell is ready to "surrender" before the full plan to defund Obama's executive action has been implemented. Brooks warned that McConnell may have made a deal with Democrats that he cannot even deliver on.
"Whether he has the votes in his conference still has yet to be determined," Brooks said calling conservative Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Jeff Sessions out by name.
Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, warned that if Boehner brought a clean DHS bill to the House floor, he would vote against it.
"There is great conundrum here that we face and that is we are forced by this president's unconstitutional action to emphasize either the short-term national security of this country or the long-term constitutional foundation and survival of the country," Franks said.
Passing a clean bill in the House would require the support of a large number of Democrats, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has already reached out to Boehner to offer assistance.
"We want to help in any way that we can to get this done," Pelosi said Wednesday.
Sarah Mimms and Alex Brown contributed to this article
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.