If you're wondering how the fight over the Department of Homeland Security funding bill is going to end, you're not alone: Lawmakers and aides across the Capitol genuinely don't know — which doesn't exactly portend well for avoiding a department shutdown.
After a two-week stint where they purportedly didn't directly speak to each other, Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thawed the silence during a 41-minute meeting in McConnell's office Wednesday. If anyone knows how this plays out, it's Boehner and McConnell, though there may be some surprises left for both of them. The Senate seems intent on sending over a "clean" extension — one devoid of riders blocking President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration — and the House seems intent on dealing with that legislative pingpong only once it actually arrives.
House Republicans emerged from their weekly conference meeting Wednesday chanting a familiar mantra , that they're in "wait-and-see mode," as Boehner put it.
As the House plays a game of hide and seek with the Senate, House lawmakers are ducking questions about how this will all end.
"The desire to shut down any part of the government does not exist within our DNA as Republicans," Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, told CQ Roll Call Wednesday night. "It is, however, our hope, that the process will develop to where we listen to the Senate and see what they're going to do."
Whatever that means.
When CQ Roll Call asked Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., if he wanted Senate Republicans to run out the clock on a clean bill, forcing a final vote on Sunday, he repeatedly refused to answer the question, stating his desire instead, over and over again, that Senate Democrats accept the House-passed bill.
That's a much easier question to answer, and as long as the House is going to play dumb, there's no need for any lawmaker to get ahead of the process.
When CQ Roll Call asked lawmakers if they could support a clean extension, the general response was 'let's see what the Senate sends over.'
"We're just waiting and seeing what the Senate does at this point in time. I don't want to impress hypotheticals," said Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas. "I do think that we shouldn't play politics with a national security agency in this high-threat environment."
Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., seemed to be an unlikely proponent of keeping DHS open at any cost. "I'm wanting to definitely see funding finished, completed in the next three days," he said, continuing that he wants to make sure that government "stays open and that we govern."
And Virgina Republican Scott Rigell — fresh from the disappointment that the House Carry-Out had run out of cookies — said he was truly undecided on a clean bill.
Members are leaving the door open, so there's a real possibility that they will vote for a DHS extension without immigration riders — a good sign for GOP leadership.
But is it enough?
"I don't know," said one Republican member, noting widespread disappointment that the Senate didn't put up a bigger fight.
"I'm not going to support a clean bill," the lawmaker said.
The Republican member was speaking on the record at the time, and when pressed again if he or she knew how this impasse would end, the lawmaker responded, "I honestly don't."
But grant that lawmaker anonymity to discuss what happens next, and that same Republican suddenly seems to know exactly what's coming.
"On background, we're going to end up caving," the member said. "We'll get enough Republicans to pass a clean [DHS bill]."
Even though Republicans would only need roughly 25 GOP votes if all Democrats supported a clean DHS measure, the member predicted that Boehner wouldn't try to pass a clean long-term extension with only a couple dozen Republicans. "Because Boehner just can't bring a bill to the floor," the member said.
"Probably get a few days into a shutdown to get enough people to feel enough pain to do it," the lawmaker theorized.
And that may be the real plan here. Boehner and McConnell, despite their seeming lack of communication, have been slow-walking the legislative process on the DHS bill for weeks.
Despite the approaching Feb. 28 deadline, they didn't cancel recess last week, and McConnell only began the process for caving Monday night. As soon as McConnell announced his intention to hold a vote on a separate bill blocking the president's executive action, Boehner's office was quick to release a statement praising the decision. There's coordination on some level there. As much as Boehner may want to distance himself from McConnell, as much as the Ohio Republican may want to demand that the Senate act, a bill that doesn't block the immigration action has always been in the cards — and Boehner and McConnell have always known that.
The real question now is how long would that bill fund DHS. McConnell is moving forward with one that would keep DHS going for the rest of the fiscal year. Boehner's strategy in bringing his conference along on the bill may be negotiating a shorter term of funding. At least, that's what this one member thought.
"Too much pain" for a DHS bill that goes to Sept. 30, the member said. A short-term extension, one in which the Texas court injunction would still be in effect to block implementation of Obama's executive action, was "more palatable."
Of course, kicking the can down the road, tautologically, just kicks the can down the road. A short-term extension would mean Congress would have to deal with DHS again. One agonizing vote could be preferable to multiple unpleasant votes.
Boehner could always take the intermediary step of sending over a shorter-term extension and letting the Senate reject it, entering deeper into the DHS shutdown before a full cave.
Whatever the case, this one member thought the DHS fight would help let Boehner "teach" the conference what's possible — and what's impossible — with a Republican Senate. "He's got to let it be real ugly and show the Senate can't do what the Senate can't do, so that our members realize that and adjust their expectations," the lawmaker said.
In that sense, the member thought this was a learning experience for Republicans, much like the shutdown. Whether members truly learned that lesson from October 2013 remains to be seen.
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