House Republican leaders learn lessons from shutdown fight

House Republican leaders learn lessons from shutdown fight
© Greg Nash

When it comes to unruly conservatives in Congress, House GOP leaders know they can’t control them — they can only hope to contain them.

This explains why party leaders are proceeding with extreme caution as they figure out how to respond to President Obama’s unilateral actions that would shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

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Top Republicans learned painful lessons from last year’s 16-day government shutdown and this summer’s messy, intraparty battle over how to respond to a surge of young immigrants from Central America — and they don’t want to repeat past mistakes.

How Republicans respond to the latest political crisis represents the first, big test for the party since it captured control of the Senate and boosted its House majority in this month’s midterm elections.

Will establishment Republicans hold the line and show they can govern? Or will Tea Party conservatives drag the party into another politically risky showdown with a lame-duck president that could imperil the GOP’s chances in 2016?

Top aides to Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew Boehner‘Lone wolf’ characterization of mass murderers is the epitome of white privilege Pelosi urges Ryan to create select committee on gun violence Ex-congressman Michael Grimm formally announces bid for old seat MORE (R-Ohio) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (R-Ky.) are speaking on a daily basis about a coordinated GOP response.

Boehner has repeatedly refused to rule out any options — even the threat of another government shutdown — to soothe Tea-Party members on the right who are furious over Obama’s executive order.

GOP leadership aides are even distancing themselves from a comment from powerful House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) that angered GOP immigration hawks like Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Rogers suggested that conservatives’ efforts to defund Obama’s actions through an appropriations bill would be “impossible” because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gets its money from fees.

“Rogers was not prodded by leadership to do that,” a GOP aide told The Hill. “He was not speaking on behalf of leadership.”

At the same time, GOP leaders are working hard to get their own members on board the no-shutdown train.

They don’t want to be caught in a trap the White House sets to goad Republicans into shutting down the government or impeaching the president.

And their success can be seen in the fact that even GOP rabble-rousers are toning down the impeachment talk.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an anti-immigration hard-liner in the Senate, ruled out impeachment on Friday. While King hasn’t gone that far, the vocal Obama critic acknowledged that pursuing impeachment would backfire.

“I’ll just say nobody wants to go there,” King, who sat in the audience of Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings in 1998, told reporters this week. “Those things don’t end well for our country. It divides our country and it pits us against each other.”

The Iowa Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee has been pushing legislation to defund agencies in the government that would pay for Obama’s executive immigration order.

That points to the challenge for Boehner and his leadership team.

Still, other conservatives who have been thorns in the side of Boehner appear to be trying to help their leadership find a way out.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a Tea Party favorite who founded the congressional Liberty caucus, said he preferred the House respond to Obama by sending a series of stand-alone GOP immigration bills to the White House, rather that defunding parts of the government.

“We don’t have to send one giant bill. We can send over parts of immigration reform over to the president,” Amash said in an interview. “In my opinion, we should do some immigration reform but it should be immigration reform that has Republican characteristics to it and not immigration reform that is imposed by the president.”

Speaking to reporters Friday, Boehner said Obama’s decision to go-it-alone on immigration was “damaging the presidency itself” and vowed that the House would act to stop him.

But he gave no indication how or when that would occur.

“We're working with our members and looking at the options that are available to us, but I will say to you, the House will, in fact, act,” Boehner said.

Republicans have a range of options: They can censure the president or pass a resolution of disapproval, but neither would have the teeth needed to stop Obama’s order. They can broaden the lawsuit they filed Friday against Obama to include his immigration actions, though that would surely get tied up in the courts for months.  

Rogers, who holds the Appropriations gavel, has floated a plan to fund the government through the fiscal year ending September 2015, and then rescind money for specific programs that would carry out Obama’s immigration order.

“We are looking at every option imaginable. All of the above,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the former Judiciary Committee chairman, said in an interview.

The chiefs of staff to Boehner and McConnell, Mike Summers and Sharon Soderstrom, are said to be in frequent contact about the GOP’s immigration response, aides said. So are policy and communications aides from both camps.

“There are daily coordination and conversations,” one leadership aide said.

Next week’s Thanksgiving recess will buy more time for Republicans as they sort out the options. So any decision on a GOP response will be punted into December.

While Republicans hit the pause button, Obama is stumping across the country to sell his immigration action and help move public opinion in his direction.

At a speech Friday in Las Vegas, Obama said he was forced to take unilateral action because the House had failed to vote on the bipartisan Senate-passed immigration overhaul bill. And he said Republicans certainly shouldn’t try to shut down the government again because of a disagreement over immigration.

The crowd chanted: “Pass a bill! Pass a bill!”

If Republicans don’t want to pass the Senate bill now, Obama said, he’ll work with both parties next year to find a legislative solution.

“And the day I sign that bill into law, then the actions that I’ve taken will no longer be necessary. And I’ll give everybody credit. I’ll be happy to have John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, alongside Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and Luis Gutierrez and Bob Menendez and all these folks …” Obama said at Del Sol High School.

“I hear some people say, ‘Well, we’re in favor of immigration reform but we don’t think that it should be done without Congress.’ Well, Congress, go ahead and do it.”