Key moment for Boehner on immigration

Greg Nash

When Speaker John BoehnerJohn Boehner3 ways the next president can succeed on immigration reform Republican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare MORE steps before House GOP lawmakers in a private meeting Tuesday, he’ll try to rally his conference to both fight President Obama’s immigration order and stave off another government shutdown.

But the Ohio Republican will also have to contend with another threat: a handful of conservative rebels who have refused to commit to backing the Speaker in a formal vote on the House floor in January.

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In a closed-door election last month, BoehnerJohn Boehner3 ways the next president can succeed on immigration reform Republican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare MORE easily won another two years as Speaker. And no one on Capitol Hill believes he will have trouble securing the 218 Republican votes he needs to hang onto his gavel — especially given the GOP’s historic gains at the ballot box in the November midterm elections.

But these conservatives say they’re closely watching how Boehner and his leadership team navigate several prickly issues — particularly a response to Obama’s executive action on immigration — before they decide how to vote in next month’s public roll call.

Any GOP defections would be an embarrassing blow to Boehner just weeks after a wave election that saw Republicans take back the Senate and win at least 246 House seats, the largest GOP majority in more than 80 years.

And public “no” votes for Boehner would evoke memories of two years ago, when a dozen disgruntled Tea Party Republicans either voted against Boehner or abstained from voting in a botched coup attempt that shined the media spotlight on ongoing divisions between the Speaker and the far right.

“Well, we’ll see,” Rep. Paul GosarPaul GosarLawmakers seek answers on Pentagon employees' casino, strip club charges House conservatives are winning Ryan faces new pressures from House conservatives MORE (R-Ariz.) said when asked if he’ll back Boehner in January. “We have a lot of terrain to cross: CR [continuing resolution], omnibus, immigration, Syria, Ebola. We have a lot to decide here shortly. I want to see how they handle it.”

If GOP leaders don’t pass the test during the lame duck? “There’s always accountability,” Gosar replied.

The president’s executive order, unveiled the day lawmakers left town for the weeklong Thanksgiving recess, would defer the deportation of up to 5 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Republicans have roundly panned it as executive “amnesty.”

Boehner aides declined to comment about possible defections among conservatives but said no decision had been made yet about how to respond to Obama’s unilateral action on immigration.

Reps. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Justin AmashJustin AmashHouse Freedom Caucus member slows floor business House votes to block Gitmo transfers Republican exodus from Trump grows MORE (R-Mich.), who voted against Boehner for Speaker in 2013, say they’ll also take a wait-and-see approach ahead of the January 2015 vote.

Funding for the federal government runs out on Dec. 11, so Congress is hustling to pass a bill to avert what would be the second shutdown in two years. Gosar opposes the omnibus bill, favored by Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), that would keep the government humming along through September 2015.

Instead, the Arizona dentist-turned-politician wants the government funded with a short-term bill known as a continuing resolution, or CR, so Republicans could tackle the Obama immigration order and spending issues in the New Year, when the party will control both chambers of Congress.

Another option Republicans will discuss in Tuesday morning’s closed-door caucus meeting is the so-called “CRomnibus,” a combination of an omnibus measure funding most federal agencies and a short-term CR funding agencies responsible for carrying out Obama’s immigration move. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa.), an immigration hawk who spent part of his Thanksgiving break touring the U.S.-Mexico border, is pushing legislation that would defund U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, though Rogers has questioned the legality of such a bill.

Meanwhile, Amash, founder of the conservative Liberty Caucus, has called on his party to respond proactively to Obama — by passing a series of immigration reform bills, starting with border security measures.

Amash won’t say whether he’ll vote against Boehner like he did two years ago, but his beef isn’t specifically about immigration. The libertarian-leaning congressman has created headaches for the Speaker since he was swept into Congress in the 2010 Tea Party wave. Both Amash and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) were stripped of key committee assignments in late 2012, and Boehner’s GOP establishment allies unsuccessfully tried to oust Amash in his primary earlier this year.    

“We’ll see how things go over the next couple of months, but I’m hopeful that things are headed in the right direction,” said Amash, who some said was the ringleader of the last failed coup.

Still, for every conservative threatening to vote against the Speaker, there is another vowing to support him. Reps. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertThe Hill's 12:30 Report Former GOP congressman lobbying for electric cars Senate races heating up MORE (R-Ariz.) and Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) have pledged to vote for Boehner in January. So has Rep. Matt SalmonMatt Salmon GOP lawmakers give Trump bad reviews on debate performance House GOP talks 'minibuses,' moves toward Senate in spending fight Gloom sets in for GOP MORE (R-Ariz.), who circulated a letter among conservatives calling for GOP leaders to include a rider in the omnibus bill that would block funding for Obama’s immigration action.

“I think a lot of people feel it’s really foolish when you pick up a majority that is the biggest Republican majority since the 1920s to challenge the guy who’s the leader of the group that made that happen” said Salmon, who reportedly was involved in the failed coup attempt against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997.

Fellow conservative Huelskamp was one of the 12 lawmakers who voted against the Ohio Republican in 2013, but he backed Boehner in last month’s closed-door election and said he’ll vote for him on the floor in January. 

Still, he’s keeping a close eye on how leadership responds.

“The American people are watching. … We can’t not respond” to Obama’s immigration action,” Huelskamp said in a recent interview while walking between the Capitol and his Cannon Building office.

“Will we go home and do nothing and punt after we just scored?” Huelskamp said, referring to the election. “This time, you act like winners.”

Other conservatives seem to be looking for any excuse to blame Boehner. He certainly didn’t benefit from accusations before Thanksgiving that GOP leaders meddled in the race for chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), an independent conservative group that, at times, has been a thorn in the side of leadership.

Leadership’s preferred candidate, Rep. Bill FloresBill FloresRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Week ahead in tech: Crunch time for internet handoff opponents GOPers fear trillion-dollar vote is inevitable MORE (R-Texas), upset the Tea Party favorite, Mulvaney, prompting one outspoken Boehner critic, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), to proclaim that leaders were “twisting arms” to help elect the less combative Flores.

“There is a perception” leaders were meddling, said one House GOP lawmaker who was not happy with the outcome of the RSC race. “I think it furthers the narrative that leadership is trying to control the entire system. It’s a top-down structure, and they will have as RSC chairman anyone they want to have.”