House Speaker John Boehner finds himself in a precarious position -– and perhaps a familiar place -- this week, as Congress once again faces a looming countdown until a partial government shutdown.
At 12:01am early Saturday morning, due to a long- simmering dispute between congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama over immigration, the Department of Homeland Security will officially run out of money unless lawmakers pass a bill to fund it. Workers will be furloughed and essential personnel will stay on the job but not get paid.
To avert a DHS shutdown and the political damage that it could cause his own party, Boehner has essentially three options.
Here they are, along with their advantages and negatives:
1. HOLD THE LINE
Boehner could choose to cater to the twenty or so House conservatives who have written him a letter instructing him to “hold firm against these unlawful executive actions.” This group, which argues that Obama’s policies on immigration are intolerable and unconstitutional, wants Boehner’s agreement that the “Legislative Branch has a responsibility to use its exclusive and constitutionally-granted authority to prevent the President’s unlawful usurpation of power.”
While that move would surely win Boehner accolades from Tea Party backers and outspoken conservative media outlets, it would almost certainly lead to a shutdown of DHS. President Barack Obama has pledged to veto any bill that explicitly seeks to limit his executive authority regarding immigration. Additionally, Democrats believe that a shutdown of DHS benefits them politically — especially at a time when Americans are worried about ongoing terrorist threats from Africa and the Middle East.
Why Boehner might do it —By assuaging the conservatives who are so often a thorn in his side, Boehner could buy himself some credibility among some of his loudest internal critics.
Why he might not — If the public blames Republicans for a shutdown, Boehner might be allowing a GOP brand long based on strong national security to look weak on terrorism. Boehner would also be –- again -- handing Obama a platform to show Democrats’ loyalty to the all-important Latino voting bloc.
2. FOLLOW THE MCCONNELL PLAN AND PUT A CLEAN BILL ON THE FLOOR
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has said he’s holding back support on McConnell’s plan unless Boehner signals it has a chance to get on the House floor.
Boehner has been noncommittal, telling reporters on Wednesday only that he’s waiting for the Senate. But if Boehner was to offer such assurances, the Senate appears poised to act. Two rank and file GOP members told NBC News that a clean DHS funding bill would then get between sixty-five to seventy-five Republican votes in the House. Combined with supportive Democratic votes, the measure would easily pass. But, by relying on Democratic support, Boehner would be violating the GOP’s so-called “Hastert Rule,” which decrees that House leaders should never propose a vote on a bill that doesn’t already have the support of the majority of their party.
Why Boehner might do it -- A DHS shutdown would be avoided. Two months into their new congressional majority, Republicans would be able to say they’re capable of governing and avoiding the brinksmanship that has characterized the last several years. Additionally, Homeland Security funding would no longer be tied to immigration, allowing the party to engage on the issue at their will and on their terms.
Why he might not – Following McConnell’s blueprint would force Boehner to violate the Hastert Rule, enraging the conservative base. That would likely spark talk of a rebellion against Boehner’s speakership, although it’s very unlikely that a coup at this stage could topple him.
3. SAY NO TO MCCONNELL BUT COME UP WITH AN ALTERNATIVE PLAN THAT TEMPORARILY FUNDS DHS AND ALLOWS REPUBLICANS TO EXPRESS ANGER OVER OBAMA’S IMMIGRATION ACTIONS
A subtext of McConnell’s proposed move is that Republicans in the Senate must defend twenty-four seats next cycle, many in Democratic-leaning states. McConnell has been seeking a way to protect his members and spare them the ire of voters next fall. Boehner could offer a middle ground that meets McConnell’s goals without angering conservatives in the House.
A possible plan would be for Boehner to allow for a temporary funding of DHS—for weeks or perhaps a few months -- while promising to fight Obama’s immigration actions through the court system. There are many options here, including filing a lawsuit or tying the funding of DHS to an eventual legal decision on the constitutionality of the White House’s immigration proposals.
Why Boehner might do it — A DHS shutdown would be avoided, and Republicans wouldn’t risk appearing to play politics with national security. GOP leaders would buy themselves time to figure out another way forward on immigration. And perhaps most importantly, if Senate Democrats block this PLAN, they might be perceived as the obstructionists instead.
Why he might not —Ardent conservatives would still see it as a surrender to Democrats. And it would simply delay another fight over funding until a later date.