On March 4, President Obama signed legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the remainder of the fiscal year ending September 30. The legislation had previously passed the Senate (on February 27) and the House followed on March 3rd—but only, after weeks of chaotic brinksmanship during which the most conservative members of the Republican caucus demanded that DHS not be funded until President Obama’s executive action on immigration was overturned.
Technically, the House voted to “recede” to the Senate’s position on not going to a House/Senate conference committee and to “concur” with the Senate bill.
House bill fails in Senate
The scene was set on January 14, when the House passed, along party lines, a DHS funding bill that contained provisions to roll back the president’s executive actions on immigration. The bill then went over to the Senate, where it is much more difficult to pass bills that are strictly partisan. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempted four times to bring the House bill to the floor of the Senate, but lost a procedural vote each time. On February 27, the day DHS funding was due to expire, the Senate considered a funding bill stripped of the controversial House provisions, and it passed in a bipartisan 68 – 31 vote.
Republican leaders in the House rejected the Senate approach and instead hoped to pass a three-week extension of funding, during which time they would demand a House-Senate conference committee to work out the differences between Senate- and House-passed bills to fund DHS for the remainder of the fiscal year. That strategy failed when more than 50 conservative Republicans joined Democrats in opposition.
For Democrats, the demand to set up a conference committee between the House and Senate bills was pointless, since any bill that might have emerged with provisions to roll back the president’s actions would be vetoed by President Obama. Conservatives seeking a confrontation with the President believed the plan did not sufficiently tie DHS funding to reversal of the immigration actions.
Republican Factional Problems Continue
The collapse of Speaker Boehner’s strategy highlighted, once again, problems within the Republican caucus that have pitted the Republican leadership against a handful of very conservative Republicans who can prevent Congress from accomplishing anything as long as leaders eschew a bipartisan approach.
As time ran out, the House managed only to pass a one-week extension of DHS funding with the support of Democrats, who believed that the Speaker would bring a “clean” DHS funding bill (without the controversial immigration-related provisions) to the floor for a vote. With just 10 minutes before the midnight expiration of DHS funding, the President signed the one-week extension.
On March 2, a motion in the Senate to proceed with a vote to agree to a conference committee with the House failed to get the required 60 votes to cut off debate. That left Speaker Boehner and his leadership team with a difficult choice: continue a partisan approach, sticking with demands pushed by the most conservative members and cause the shutdown of DHS, or take up the Senate’s bipartisan bill to fund DHS for the remainder of the year.
In the end, the bipartisan Senate bill passed in the House with bipartisan support. The final tally on the motion to recede and concur was 257 to 167.
Bipartisan Governance or Partisan Stalemate?
The immigration fight does not bode particularly well for the new Congress. Problems that made the 113th Congress the least productive in history continue to plague the 114th Congress. If House Republican leaders try to get things done by working in a bipartisan manner, they face angry conservatives who threaten to unseat Mr. Boehner from his leadership position. On the other hand, efforts to please the small number of vocal conservatives in the House, by acting in a strictly partisan manner, are incompatible with the effective governance Republican leaders have promised.
In this fight, both the House and Senate ultimately passed bills with bipartisan support and ended the possibility of the partial government shutdown. The same approach can yield dividends with immigration reform—bipartisan cooperation will get Congress over the finish line. The partisan path, on the other hand, will result in another historically unproductive Congress.