GOP seeks unity vs. Obama on DHS

GOP seeks unity vs. Obama on DHS
© Greg Nash

Republicans plan to force the Senate to repeatedly vote on a controversial House bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security but also overturns President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

The strategy has the dual purpose of mollifying conservative House critics who have questioned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPortman gets in heated clash with McConnell on ObamaCare repeal: report Medicaid becomes big threat to GOP’s healthcare revival Unresolved issues, very little time for Senate GOP MORE’s (R-Ky.) resolve and highlighting Democratic obstruction of the measure.

“I think it’s a rather honestly absurd position to say, ‘We object to a bill but don’t want to debate the bill or change the bill.’ I’m perplexed,” McConnell said Tuesday.

Yet some Republicans voiced reservations about the strategy.

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Including this week, Congress is only scheduled to work for three weeks in February, leaving lawmakers with precious little time to work out a solution.

Without a deal, the Homeland Security Department’s funding will expire on Feb. 27 — giving ammunition to a resurgent White House that has argued Republicans are putting security at risk with a fight over immigration.

“I wish we would take no for an answer and figure out the next step,” said one Republican senator who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the debate.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday easily blocked a motion to proceed to the House bill in a 51-48 vote. GOP Sen. Dean HellerDean HellerMedicaid becomes big threat to GOP’s healthcare revival Koch-backed group launches new ads on tax reform Overnight Healthcare: GOP infighting erupts over bill | How Republican governors could bring down ObamaCare repeal | Schumer asks Trump to meet with Dems MORE (Nev.) defected and joined Democrats. The other Republican “no” vote was McConnell, who switched his vote from “yes” in a procedural move that allows him to bring the legislation to the floor again.

House GOP leaders feeling pressure from conservatives signaled support for their Senate colleagues. “There’s no plan B because this is the plan,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), according to Fox News.

Buoyed by polls showing Obama’s approval rating at 50 percent, the administration thinks Republicans will cave and accept a clean bill that will have to pass the House with Democratic votes.

If they do not, the White House expects the GOP will get the blame for a partial shutdown of the Homeland Security Department. 

For a second day in a row, Obama sought to build public pressure on Republicans.

“The notion that we would risk the effectiveness of the department that is charged with preventing terrorism and patrolling our borders, making sure the American people are safe makes absolutely no sense,” he said at a Cabinet meeting.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillMcCaskill attended reception at Russian ambassador's residence in 2015 Senators question need for HHS cyber office Overnight Cybersecurity: Obama DHS chief defends Russian hack response | Trump huddles on grid security | Lawmakers warned about cyber threat to election systems MORE (D-Mo.) linked the procedural fights on the Senate floor to a video released showing a hostage being burned alive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

McCaskill said she was sure McConnell, Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTea Party favorite to lead conservative think tank Chaffetz calls for ,500 legislator housing stipend GOP super-PAC promises big spending in 2018 MORE (R-Ohio) and their staffs talk and coordinate on a daily basis now that the GOP has control of both the House and Senate.

“So what do we do right out of the gate? We threaten to shut down the department of our government that protects our homeland, while ISIS is burning prisoners alive on film?” she asked.

GOP senators on Tuesday said Democrats would get the blame.

“It seems like a hard position for them to defend,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy BluntOvernight Regulation: Senate Banking panel huddles with regulators on bank relief | FCC proposes 2M fine on robocaller | Yellowstone grizzly loses endangered protection Overnight Finance: Big US banks pass Fed stress tests | Senate bill repeals most ObamaCare taxes | Senate expected to pass Russian sanctions bill for second time GOP senator: 'No reason' to try to work with Dems on healthcare MORE (R-Mo.). “The next step is to talk about why they should have voted to debate the bill for a couple days [and] see where that takes us.”

But just weeks ago at a GOP Senate retreat, McConnell urged House Republicans to realize they had to readjust their expectations after the successful midterm elections. While voters increased the GOP’s House majority and delivered the party control of the Senate, McConnell still needs Democratic votes to pass legislation.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynUnresolved issues, very little time for Senate GOP GOP infighting erupts over healthcare bill Senators urge Trump to do right thing with arms sales to Taiwan MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters at the GOP retreat that the House bill could be changed by amendment in the Senate.

The House bill blocks funding for the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows certain immigrants who entered the U.S. as children to get work permits and live in the United States, even if they entered illegally or overstayed a visa. It would also reverse another action from November that would shield the immediate family of citizens and permanent residents from deportation.

The measure suffered a spate of GOP defections when it passed the House in mid-January.  Ten House Republicans voted against the appropriations bill. Twenty-six voted against the amendment to halt Obama’s executive order on the DACA.

A slew of Senate Republicans are running for reelection next year in blue states won by Obama. They all voted in favor of the motion to proceed on Tuesday, but it is unclear whether they will vote for the substance of the bill.

Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkGOP senator defends funding Planned Parenthood Why Qatar Is a problem for Washington Taking the easy layup: Why brain cancer patients depend on it MORE (Ill.), perhaps the most vulnerable GOP incumbent up for reelection next year, missed the vote. But his office said he would have voted “yes” on the motion to proceed.

“Senator Kirk believes that those hoping to become American citizens deserve to be governed by laws, not executive orders — but as he has said, shutting down the security functions of the United States government is not effective leadership,” a Kirk aide said in an email.

Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDems face identity crisis Heller under siege, even before healthcare Charles Koch thanks Harry Reid for helping his book sales MORE (D-Nev.) said it’s inevitable Congress would pass a bill that doesn’t undermine Obama’s immigration actions.

“We all know this is going to end with a bill funding Homeland Security that goes to the president,” he said. “We’ll wind up passing a clean bill, so why do we wait? Why do we agonize?”

A senior Senate Democratic aide noted that McConnell can only bring the motion back to the floor for a vote once before having to redo the lengthy process for ending a filibuster.

If McConnell files again for cloture, a third vote would have to wait until next week.

“That just seems like a stupid waste of time,” said the aide.  

But a senior GOP senator said Republicans plan to stick to the House bill.

“As far as I know, right now, there’s no Plan B, because if there was a Plan B, you would be admitting failure,” said Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyCoal, nuclear vie for supremacy in key Energy Department study GOP senators want surveillance requests from FBI Russia probe Overnight Cybersecurity: New ransomware attack spreads globally | US pharma giant hit | House intel panel interviews Podesta | US, Kenya deepen cyber partnership MORE (R-Iowa).