McConnell puts squeeze on House

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is shifting tactics, saying Tuesday he is willing to allow a vote on a “clean” bill funding the Department of Homeland Security that would prevent a shutdown.

The Kentucky Republican said the legislation would be stripped of language attacking President Obama’s 2014 executive actions on immigration. That move has set up a fight with House Republicans, with fewer than 80 hours to the DHS shutdown deadline.

“I’ve indicated to [Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)] that I’d be happy to have his cooperation to advance the consideration of a clean DHS bill, which would carry us through until Sept. 30,” McConnell told reporters after a GOP conference meeting. “With Democratic cooperation on a position they have been advocating for the last two months, we could have that vote very quickly.”

McConnell said he would be willing to vote on the clean measure before considering a separate bill that would prohibit the administration from implementing Obama’s executive actions shielding the immediate family members of citizens and permanent legal residents from deportation.

The new strategy from McConnell raises pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and sets in motion a legislative chess game with Reid.

Even though McConnell’s plan would appear to give Senate Democrats exactly what they want, Reid said he first wanted assurances from Boehner that the bill would pass the House.

“Unless the Speaker is in on the proposal — of course we have to make sure that we can get a bill to the president, not that we send a hot potato to Boehner,” Reid said.

“That doesn’t do the trick,” he said of McConnell’s proposal.

It is far from clear that Boehner can win a majority of House Republican votes for a clean Homeland Security funding bill. The Speaker is scheduled to hold a crucial meeting of his conference Wednesday morning.

“The Speaker has been clear: The House has acted, and now Senate Democrats need to stop hiding. Will they continue to block funding for the Department of Homeland Security or not?” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman.

Asked whether his boss warned Boehner of the new tack, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said, “I don’t have any readouts about their meetings. They update each other all the time.” 

The GOP leaders have different considerations. McConnell has his eye on November 2016 and retaining his new majority in the upper chamber against a tough map. Boehner isn’t worried about losing the House, which would require Democrats to win 30 seats; what he has to worry about is igniting another Tea Party revolt that has previously threatened his Speakership.

Reid’s statement sparked exasperation among Republicans.

“Apparently inspired by President Obama’s own over-reach, Sen. Reid is now shamelessly threatening to filibuster a clean Homeland Security funding bill,” said a senior GOP House aide.

“Sen. Reid said, ‘Pass a clean funding bill.’ Sen. [Dick] Durbin [D-Ill.] said, ‘Pass a clean funding bill.’ You guys all went to a press conference today where they said, ‘Pass a clean funding bill,’ ” Stewart told reporters. 

By withholding their support, Democrats can extend the fight in an issue where the clock is now firmly on their side. McConnell’s move suggests he fears his party would take the bigger political hit from a shutdown.

He conceded Tuesday that he did not know how the GOP-led House would react.

“I don’t know what the House will do but I do think we have a responsibility to act here,” McConnell said.

McConnell hopes House Republicans will be placated by his strategy to force Senate Democrats to vote on the 2014 immigration order. It would need 60 votes to pass the Senate, and seven Democrats are on record questioning Obama’s decision to circumvent Congress to protect millions of illegal immigrants.

It appears unlikely that most of those Democrats would back the Republican bill, but it could be a tough vote.

One of the Democratic centrists, Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), said he would oppose the immigration measure, dismissing it as Republican “gamesmanship.”

Another Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) signaled support.

Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (Mo.) office said that she would vote for cloture on the bill, but wants DHS to be cleanly funded first.

Conservative groups pushed Boehner on Tuesday to reject McConnell’s plan, with Heritage Action for America announcing it would count any vote for a clean bill as a negative mark on its legislative scorecard.

House conservatives and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) urged the Speaker to hold his ground.

“The House of Representatives acted wisely, properly, funding Homeland Security and not allowing activities to be carried out that are unlawful and that Congress has rejected,” Sessions said. “Now, there are some even on the Republican side that say, ‘Oh, gosh, you know the president will blame us even if it’s not our fault and we might as well cave in and give him what he wants.’ ”

Other Senate Republicans, however, urged Boehner to embrace McConnell’s plan.

“I think it’s a good solution to the problem — you have a debate on whether or not the executive action is good policy, lawful, and you don’t put at risk the funding of DHS at a time when we need all of our defenses up and running,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I just hope our House colleagues understand that the growing threats against our nation are real.

He added, a “shutdown goes badly for us.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the Tea Party firebrand and a leading proponent of reversing Obama’s executive orders with the funding bill, initially declined to comment, telling reporters to contact his office.

In a statement later released by his office, he called the new strategy a “mistake.”

“Leadership’s current plan — to pass clean DHS funding and separate legislation barring executive amnesty — is a mistake. Congress is obliged to use every constitutional check and balance we have to rein in President Obama’s lawlessness, and that includes both our confirmation authority over nominees and the power of the purse.”

 This story was updated at 10:58 p.m.

— By Alexander Bolton and Rebecca Shabad, Scott Wong contributed.

Tags Boehner Claire McCaskill Harry Reid Immigration Jeff Sessions Joe Manchin John Boehner Lindsey Graham Mark Warner Mitch McConnell Ted Cruz

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