McConnell’s move to quickly pass DHS bill attracts grumbling

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) decision to pass a short-term Homeland Security bill late last week has attracted criticism from some conservatives.

After the House on Friday failed to pass a three-week bill to avert a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shutdown, McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to pass a one-week DHS extension by unanimous request.

{mosads}A Senate GOP aide said McConnell’s office gave senators a window of only seven to 12 minutes to object to the stopgap.

“It’s highly unusual to send members home, saying the Senate’s concluded its business and people are on airplanes, and then to pass a significant measure by voice vote with nobody there,” said the staffer.

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, strongly disputed that version of events. He said senators had at least an hour of advance warning.

The criticisms from the right come from a minority of the GOP conference. Many Republican senators were glad to avoid a DHS shutdown, even if it meant passing a one-week funding bill that did not repeal President Obama’s controversial executive actions.

Most Republicans in the Senate are frustrated at the House — not McConnell. The Kentucky Republican, a shrewd tactician who wants to tackle big-ticket items, such as trade and tax reform, is trying desperately to turn the page on the DHS face-off.

Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) battles with House conservatives have taken center stage in the first two months of the new Congress, but tensions are brewing in the Senate as well.

A majority of the Senate Republican Conference voted Friday to protest McConnell’s tactic of barring colleagues from offering amendments to the DHS funding bill. Thirty-four Republicans, a majority, voted for a motion sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would have opened the bill to changes.

Some Senate GOP aides said McConnell had taken a page from Reid’s 2014 playbook.

“Overall, it’s very frustrating,” said one Senate GOP aide. “One of the cases we made last year during the election was to retire Reid because he screwed up the Senate.”

Reid routinely used a procedure known as filling the amendment tree in the last Congress to protect vulnerable Democratic colleagues from taking tough votes on amendments. McConnell used it Friday to ensure passage of a clean funding bill when the Homeland Security Department was hours away from shutting down because of congressional gridlock.

Senate Republicans promised before the midterm elections to reform the Senate and allow regular order, which entails wide latitude to vote on amendments.

“Now is when the rubber meets the road. When things get tough and things get hard and you have to talk about staying in on Friday and staying in on Saturday to get things, are you going to be willing to keep your promise and have regular order?” the aide asked. 

“When things got tough, McConnell went and filled the tree.”

However, the majority leader has spoken out against government shutdowns and had a vote not been scheduled Friday, the DHS would have shuttered over the weekend.

Stewart pointed out that his boss tried four times — unsuccessfully — to move the House-passed funding bill, but it could not overcome a Democratic filibuster.

“It was the only option,” he said of the clean funding bill. 

McConnell did not want to block amendments but had little choice, he said. 

Several of the senators who voted for Lee’s motion were mainstream Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), indicating the vote was more of a statement of procedural preference than a conservative revolt.

Republican strategists also note a critical difference between McConnell’s move last week and Reid’s frequent use of the blocking tactic in the last Congress.

“Harry Reid, when he filled the tree, he did it to block Republican amendments to protect his own caucus. Now, it appears McConnell is using the same tool to protect himself from Republicans and not allow Republicans to poison deals that he cut,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.

McConnell has also earned praise from Republican colleagues for seizing the initiative and splitting DHS funding from legislation overturning Obama’s executive orders on immigration.

Within the Senate GOP conference, criticism from conservatives has been muted compared to the House.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a prominent Tea Party conservative, criticized McConnell’s plan to split off the immigration provisions from the funding bill as a “mistake” but did not raise any procedural objections to stop the Senate from considering the clean funding bill before the Feb. 27 deadline.

McConnell faces another conflict with conservatives over Loretta Lynch’s nomination to succeed Eric Holder as attorney general.

Some conservatives want Republicans to block her to protest Obama’s actions on immigration.

“If you are opposed to something the president is doing, you have various leverage points. The lowest magnitude of them is blocking a nominee,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America. “If you actually oppose what the president is doing on executive amnesty, you’re not going to confirm someone who is going to carry out his executive amnesty.”

A senior Senate GOP aide told The Hill last week that Lynch’s nomination would come to the floor this week, but it now appears a vote on her nomination will be delayed until later this month.

Another Senate aide speculated it could be that McConnell does not want to provoke a new confrontation with conservatives while the DHS funding bill remains unresolved.

Stewart said Lynch was never scheduled for this week.

Scott Wong contributed. 

Tags Boehner Eric Holder Harry Reid Immigration John Boehner Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Ted Cruz

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