By Alexander Bolton and Scott Wong - 01/15/15 08:19 PM EST
HERSHEY, PA. — Senate GOP leaders are using their joint retreat with the House to warn conservatives that they’re not going to be able to reverse President Obama’s executive orders on immigration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP mired in Zika dispute Judge Merrick Garland and the rise of super-PACs McConnell sets up vote to begin debate on defense policy bill MORE (R-Ky.) told House lawmakers that he needs at least six Democrats to pass legislation approved by the House that funds the Homeland Security Department and repeals Obama’s actions deferring deportation for millions of illegal immigrants.
“You look at the hand you’re dealt. There are not 60 Republicans, so you have to convince six Democrats to move with them,” said one border-state Republican congressman. “Pigs will fly out of my rear end before that happens.”
It’s also far from clear that all 54 Republican senators would support the House bill, which would also undo Obama’s 2012 order that gives legal status to certain people who entered the U.S. illegally as children.
Twenty-six House Republicans voted against that portion of the bill on Wednesday.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters on Thursday that the bill could be changed by amendment in the Senate.
Cornyn’s comments also sent the signal that GOP conservatives in the House need to lower their expectations.
Without a deal, the Homeland Security Department could shutdown after Feb. 27, when its existing funding runs out.
That’s something Republicans in both chambers want to avoid, and the messages from Cornyn and McConnell are sinking in, the border-state congressman said.
“The expectation by the rank and file in the House is it’s not going to come back even remotely similar to what we sent over there. And there is a real reticence by members of our conference to allow the funding to lapse,” the lawmaker added.
In public, McConnell emphasized that the Senate would seek to move the House bill.
“We’re going try to pass it. If we’re unable to do that, we’ll see what happens,” he told reporters.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking member of the Senate Republican leadership rolled his eyes when asked if the House bill would pass the upper chamber.
“Good question,” he said.
“Obviously we want to give our members an opportunity to vote to express their opposition to the president’s action, but we also realize at the end of the day, in the Senate, it’s going to take 60 votes,” he said.
GOP leaders expect Senate Democrats will block any legislation that repeals Obama’s 2012 order setting up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program or the November order expanding protections against deportation to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants.
They are eyeing a fallback position: passing a series of proposals, which had support from some House Democrats and could attract centrist Senate Democrats as well.
One amendment by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) puts a greater priority on deporting sexual offenders, while another by Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) would bar the administration from using fees to process applications from illegal immigrants covered by the president’s executive action.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) predicted the Senate’s work product would not mirror the House’s exactly.
“The House is going to work its will; the Senate is going to work its will, and then we’ll either get to conference, or we’ll find some way to resolve the difference. That is what we call regular order,” he said.
“There are 535 of us on Capitol Hill and to try to get all of us to agree is not an easy job,” he cautioned.
At the same time, Republican leaders have made clear to Senate and House conservatives that they are not going to let Homeland Security funding lapse if they cannot pass language repealing Obama’s executive orders.
“No more drama associated with shutting down, for example, the Department of Homeland Security. That’s off the table,” Cornyn told reporters.
“Under no circumstances will we see any shutdowns,” he said.
Conservatives led by Iowa Rep. Steve King (R) are pressing Senate Republican leaders to pull out all the stops to reverse Obama’s unilateral actions.
“We should never … say ‘fait accompli, we can’t do this,’ and then give up,” he said.
He said McConnell should spend a month whipping votes before putting the House bill on the floor.
“I want to see them build all of the votes that they can and then put it up for a vote. I think it’s going to take a month to do that,” he said, vowing a lobbying campaign by outside groups to pressure wavering senators.
Leaders have tried to reassure colleagues worried about illegal immigration by pledging action on legislation to secure the border and strengthen enforcement policies against illegal residents.
“Step 1 is to pass pretty much all of [Homeland Security Committee Chairman] Mike McCaul’s [R-Texas] border security bill. That’s the first step we’ll take,” said Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas).
“The next part will be interior enforcement,” he added. “We’re not divided at all on the first two steps, border security and the interior enforcement. There’s little or no disagreement.”
Marchant said the interior enforcement legislation would come from the Judiciary Committee chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading proponent for using the Homeland Security appropriations bill to defund Obama’s orders, agreed there is consensus about moving border security and interior enforcement measures.
“I did feel a firm commitment for an enforcement system that works, and I hope that we can get that,” he said.
He argued that Congress should pass an effective E-Verify program to crack down on the employment of illegal immigrants and an entry-exit tracking system to catch people who overstay their visas.