The overhauled House Republican leadership team is already preparing for its first major challenge: steering an emergency border bill toward passage.
The border bill represents a big test for Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Steve Scalise (R-La.), who don’t even officially take over their new jobs as majority leader and majority whip until July 31.
That’s likely to force Republicans to win most of the 218 votes from their own fractious conference on the controversial issue of immigration.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who last week privately told his conference he hoped to have a bill down by the August recess, downplayed expectations Thursday.
“I don't have as much optimism as I'd like to have,” he said of a bill’s prospects.
While McCarthy and Scalise don’t formally take on their new roles until the end of the month, McCarthy has taken on all appearances of majority leader. McCarthy, not current Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) now conducts the weekly floor colloquy with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to outline the upcoming schedule.
Scalise, formerly a deputy whip, has appeared at leadership press conferences at the spot usually reserved for the whip.
This suggests both men will bear responsibility for winning votes on the immigration bill, though Scalise told The Hill that McCarthy still has the official title of chief vote-counter.
“He’s still the whip until July 31. We’re working on a transition right now,” Scalise said. “Obviously, we’re watching the things that still have to go forward.”
Scalise said he has been working with several members on immigration in his former capacity as head of the Republican Study Committee. He also was “very active” in helping bring forward the fiscal 2015 financial services appropriations bill, which the House passed Wednesday.
Republicans are awaiting a final report from a working group that is drafting policy recommendations on the border crisis.
Those recommendations are likely to be combined with the spending portion of the bill being drafted by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).
Republicans are demanding changes to a 2008 human trafficking law that would allow officials on the border to more quickly send minors from Central American countries back to their home nations.
Rogers has said his bill would include less than the $3.7 billion requested by Obama, which would make it more difficult to win Democratic votes.
Republicans haven’t said whether they would include spending cuts to offset the new funds, and there is some resistance among the rank-and-file members to providing funding for new immigration lawyers and judges who the administration says are needed to speed up deportation proceedings without securing the border first.
“Until we stop the bleeding, no money for lawyers,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
He estimated that there were about 20 to 25 House Republicans who share his views, based on the number of members endorsing his proposal to call on border state governors to send National Guard troops to the border.
Even that number of GOP holdouts would imperil passage of a bill if Democrats oppose it.
After meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said the Congressional Hispanic Caucus would not back a funding bill if it included changes to the trafficking law.
And Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Republicans are moving in the wrong direction.
“What they have said in their public statements is that they don’t want to do all that much money, and that they want to have legislation in there that is harmful to some of the children,” she said. “That sounds like an all Republican bill to me.”
With specifics still not nailed down, rank-and-file members said Thursday they had not yet heard from leadership members looking to determine support for a potential package.
“It’s an issue that all the conference is engaged in,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “I can tell you everybody’s talking about it, so I can’t pinpoint one particular person.”