When Republican leaders seized control of the Senate, they quickly targeted must-pass appropriations bills — not shutdown showdowns — as their best tool for reining in the Obama White House.
Two months into the 114th Congress, they have run smack into the limits of that strategy.
The immigration fight that has stalemated the fiscal 2015 Homeland Security spending bill, leaving the department days away from a possible shutdown, makes clear the high hurdles that remain for getting bills to President Barack Obama's desk.
Even worse for Republicans, Senate Democrats found a strategy that has left the GOP feuding with itself over who needs to make the next move.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Late last year, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explained his plan to CQ Roll Call in an interview.
“If you believe one of the biggest problems confronting the country is over-regulation by this administration, the single most effective way to begin to rein in the aggressive regulators, who in my view have done great damage to this economy, is in the bills that fund the regulators,” the Kentucky Republican said.
McConnell has encouraged GOP senators to use the 12 must-pass spending bills to impose limits on the president’s signature policies, from EPA greenhouse gas regulations to the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul, and his junior colleagues appear to be taking that message to heart.
"I say we put not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of instructions to the president on how it should be spent," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told a local radio audience late last year.
But other Republicans on both sides of the Dome say GOP lawmakers need to temper their expectations given the threat of Democratic filibusters.
Quietly, they are trying to make the case to colleagues that there’s a sweet spot between attacking the Obama administration agenda and crafting legislation that can actually make it to the president.
"Part of our challenge right now as Republicans is to try to tamp down expectations,” said Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a senior GOP appropriator. “It's nice to have Republican chairmen of committees that we're working with to negotiate bills out and stuff, but the general public thinks we're in total control and can do anything now. The rules of the Senate don't allow that."
At a briefing with reporters early this month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski made much the same case.
“We are going to be working aggressively every step of the way to put together a bill that is responsive and is something that we can gain support for passage — not a messaging bill, but support for passage,” the Alaska Republican said of the perennially contentious Interior-Environment measure she’ll be in charge of crafting this year.
The current stalemate over the House-passed fiscal 2015 Homeland Security spending bill (HR 240) proves the point, demonstrating the Senate's minority of Democrats is willing and able to filibuster to keep particularly unwanted GOP policy restrictions from reaching the floor. Part of the reason Democrats have been able to unite so firmly is that the House bill went so far in trying to reverse several years of the administration’s immigration policies.
The standoff puts Senate Republicans in a particularly sticky position, given that McConnell, upon beginning his tenure as majority leader, said he would rule out government shutdowns.
Democratic Filibusters Democrats held together last week after a federal judge in Texas issued an injunction blocking the president’s most recent batch of immigration actions.
“It’s perfectly appropriate to take this issue to court, but it is completely unacceptable for Republicans to hold up funding for the Department of Homeland Security while the case wends its way through the legal system,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer said in a statement in response.
The New York Democrat has been saying that allowing the Senate to proceed to debate the bill would be akin to negotiating with a gun to the head, even as DHS funding is set to expire on Feb. 27.
Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said McConnell should not try to take appropriations bills hostage.
"Senator McConnell's hostage-taking strategy does not jibe with his claim of a mandate for the Republican agenda," he said in an email on Feb. 20. "If Republicans truly believe they have a mandate, why not bring the policies they want to enact to the Senate floor and let them be debated on their own merits, in full view of the American people, instead of trying to jam them through on must-pass spending bills?"
Democrats could face considerably more blowback if they block debate on other spending bills when there’s no imminent deadline — or if the policy riders were crafted more subtly.
When in the majority, Democrats would regularly lambaste their GOP counterparts for blocking debate on bills by filibustering motions to proceed, particularly on issues that became politically charged.
“Because there are a handful of issues on which the Republicans cooperated, let's not come down to the floor and say everything is perfect and Republicans are not blocking us, when, in fact, they are blocking us,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said in 2012, a line that referred to a debate about student loan interest rates but was repeated nearly verbatim on numerous occasions.
But Democrats aren't strangers to filibustering spending bills to block riders; they successfully filibustered the fiscal 2006 Defense appropriations bill in December 2005 after then-Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, tucked language into the conference report that would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
That led to a tense floor standoff between Stevens and fellow senior appropriator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Democrats ultimately prevailed.
New GOP Approach? It is unclear whether their experience with the Homeland Security bill will moderate the GOP’s approach to crafting fiscal 2016 spending bills, a move that would make it more difficult for Senate Democrats to justify a blockade.
Their best strategy might be to try drafting bills that are as conservative as possible while still attracting the six Democratic votes needed in the Senate to get to the president’s desk — if not the 67 in the Senate and 291 in the House needed for a veto-proof majority.
“I don’t think we compromise our point of view, but recognize the limitations that we have,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.
Simpson said a critical lesson coming out of the current standoff will be the need to educate newer members about what is to achieve through the appropriations process.
“We need to bring in these people, not to convince them that we’re right, but to help them understand how the process works and that the biggest compromise you’re ever going to see on any given bill is an appropriations bill,” he said.
House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., kicked off an outreach project last spring to fold rank-and-file Republicans into the appropriations process early to avoid so-called poison-pill amendments on the floor that could ultimately jeopardize support for final passage, while also maintaining openness on the floor. That effort is expected to be replicated this year with fiscal 2016 bills.
“The reality is that at some point in time you’ve got to put on your big boy pants and say, ‘What’s possible and what can we do?'" Simpson said.
Lauren Gardner and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.