Senate GOP frustrated with Boehner over immigration tactics

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Frustration is building among Senate Republicans that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is not making more of an effort to manage the expectations of House conservatives.

One of the first pieces of business conducted by the GOP House this year as to approve an immigration bill overturning President Obama’s executive actions that have given legal status to millions of people brought illegally to the United States as children or who are related to citizens and permanent residents.

{mosads}The legislation would also provide funding through the rest of the year for the Department of Homeland Security, making it must pass legislation for the Senate. But the language attacking Obama’s executive actions is opposed by Democrats, leaving the bill dead on arrival in the Senate and putting Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a tough spot.

Some lawmakers think Boehner could have done a better job of reminding rank-and-file conservatives that a repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and another executive action shielding up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation has no chance of passing the Senate.

“One of the things that we tried to stress at the conference was, ‘Look, we don’t have 60 votes. We can’t operate like the House does,’” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss Boehner candidly.  

“It’s going to be very difficult to achieve what the expectations are out there. Candidly, impossible,” the lawmaker added. 

Senate Republicans say they’re concerned a pattern could develop in the 114th Congress in which Boehner repeatedly sends bills to the Senate that have little chance of picking up Democratic votes, fueling frustration with the upper chamber among conservative activists.

“So far I think I think we’re all pretty philosophical about this. In June when this has happened three or four times we might feel different,” said another Republican senator.

McConnell and his staff consult regularly with Boehner and his office and they almost never criticize their leadership counterparts across the Capitol.

Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, said House members are fully aware that controversial legislation needs 60 votes to pass the Senate.

“Speaker Boehner and Sen. McConnell share the same goal: to get good, conservative bills — particularly jobs bills — to the president’s desk. Everyone is cognizant of the different rules in the two chambers,” Steel said. 

Senate Republicans understand that Boehner, who faced a challenge to his speakership at the start of the year, has to keep conservatives in his caucus happy but they worry about him doing it at McConnell’s expense.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a leading Tea Party conservative, has already criticized McConnell for showing weak leadership in the effort to reverse Obama’s executive actions. 

“It’s uncanny to me that our leadership … is already sending the message that we’ve already lost this battle,” he said at a gathering of conservative lawmakers Wednesday.

“Last year the message was, ‘We cannot get our way because we don’t have a Senate [majority].’ Now this year’s message is, ‘We cannot get our way, because we only have 54 votes,’” he said. “That’s not leadership. That’s not why the American people voted for us.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), another outspoken conservative voice on immigration, said McConnell should pull out all the stops over the next month to round up 60 votes for the House bill.

“We should never … say ‘fait accompli, we can’t do this,’ and then give up,” King told The Hill at the joint Senate-House GOP retreat in Hershey, Pa.

Republican senators have come to McConnell’s defense.

“I think they’re jumping the gun. Tell them to be a little more patient. The deadline isn’t until Feb. 27,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas).

Cornyn, however, was careful not to fault Boehner, noting he doesn’t have an easy job satisfying the ambitious expectations of Tea-Party colleagues.

“I think Boehner’s done a great job under the circumstances,” he said.

McConnell faces a difficult balancing act over the next two years as he seeks to attack Obama and handle legislation sent over from the conservative House, all while protecting his own fragile majority.

Republicans have 54 seats in the Senate, and will be defending 24 incumbents in 2016.

Several moderate Republicans including Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have balked at the prospect of a standoff over immigration that could threaten funding for the agency.

Some senators have speculated over whether Boehner is setting his own chamber up to do something bigger on immigration.

“It makes it hard for us but it may be he’s giving his members this so he can get something in return — immigration reform,” said the GOP senator, who requested anonymity to speculate on Boehner’s motives.

The theory is that by appeasing immigration hardliners with language repealing the president’s executive action, they may be more willing to vote for border security and interior enforcement legislation, and perhaps other elements of immigration reform such as expanded visas for foreign workers.

Senate Republicans acknowledge they don’t have a clear plan of action for moving the homeland security appropriations bill.

One possibility would be to strip the riders from the bill and add the border security measure drafted by House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas), which the House is expected to pass next week.

Another option is to extend Department Homeland Security funding for another month. This would penalize the administration by hampering its ability to plan for programs more than a few weeks into the future.

“The guys back home will throw up their hands and say, ‘Oh you’re caving in. You’re trying to fool us into think you’re fighting.’ But it’s more painful than people realize. They can’t plan anything beyond thirty days,” said a Republican senator, making reference to the penalty that would by imposed on the administration.   

Scott Wong contributed. 


Tags Barack Obama Illegal immigration Immigration John Boehner John Cornyn Mitch McConnell

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