House GOP leaders are likely to float a proposal in their conference next week to fund most government agencies through September 2015, while providing a shorter-term stopgap component for immigration-related programs and initiatives.
The current framework, according to a few Republican aides close to the discussions, is being pushed in particular by Tom Price, R-Ga., the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, who has close ties to leadership and strong conservative credentials but no official affiliation with the appropriations process.
While some lawmakers are calling this gambit the “Cromnibus” — a combination of a continuing resolution, or CR, and an omnibus — others, in a closed-door Republican Conference meeting last week, were calling it the “Price Plan.”
“Price has advocated in discussions with his colleagues in the Republican conference for a plan to pass an omnibus through the rest of the fiscal year, but taking out and passing separately those funding programs related to illegal immigration,” one source said. “Those items would be dealt with in a short-term CR.”
House Republicans come back to work Monday with just a few days to figure out how to avert a government shutdown, while pacifying hard-line conservatives who want to take President Barack Obama to task for his immigration executive orders.
Price's strategy — which has been put forward by others independently — would punt the immigration fight to early next year and separate it from the must-pass spending legislation, which could rankle some rank-and-file lawmakers who want to have the battle now.
It would, however, guarantee that the issue gets addressed sooner rather than later, without risking a government shutdown right before the holidays, since the current stopgap spending measure (PL 113-164) expires Dec. 11. By next year, with both chambers led by Republicans, leadership will have new leverage to try to extract concessions from the Obama administration in exchange for continuing immigration-related funding.
As an added bonus, the delay would buy lawmakers more time to work around one pesky detail: It’s not possible to use a strictly written appropriations bill to defund the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the key agency responsible for implementing many of the newly announced immigration executive orders.
Appropriators have warned that trying to defund the USCIS through a spending bill, as some conservatives have called for, is not a viable solution. Because the agency is funded through fees, changing its funding would require authorization language, and such language isn’t likely to survive a near-certain veto threat.
Indeed, if the government shut down over a White House refusal to budge on the unilateral changes it made to immigration law, USCIS would continue to operate and implement those changes.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, cautioned, “No decision has been made.”
“We are listening to members and discussing options,” Steel said in an email to CQ Roll Call.
There are, indeed, a lot of things that could go wrong with that proposal that would prompt leadership to recalibrate.
One of immigration overhaul legislation’s most vocal opponents, Steve King, R-Iowa, told CQ Roll Call last week that he didn’t buy the argument that it was impossible to defund USCIS in an appropriations bill or attach a policy rider that would have similar effect.
A GOP aide familiar with negotiations over how immigration issues could be dealt with in the appropriations process said that another idea would be to fund all the appropriations bills in a long-term omnibus, except for the one funding the Department of Homeland Security (HR 4903), which broadly contains many of the offices responsible for carrying out immigration law.
That might not sit well with the members of the Homeland Security subcommittee, who have been working along with all the other members of the Appropriations Committee to pass spending bills through the elusive “regular order.”
"The funding scheme reportedly being proposed by House Republicans would weaken enforcement of existing immigration laws," Rep. David E. Price of North Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call. "Short-term funding measures only create uncertainty, and will limit ICE’s ability to deport dangerous criminals and to transfer children to HHS for humane treatment. If Republican leadership is concerned about the effectiveness of our immigration strategy, holding enforcement funding hostage is an awfully foolish way to bring about positive change."
He added, "I find such a cynical, political proposal especially frustrating because appropriators on both sides of the aisle have made great progress on FY15 bills.”
Appropriators on both sides of the aisle continue to insist that a full-fledged omnibus remains a possibility, with aides from both parties saying that negotiations are continuing and that progress is being made, even as the time grows sort. House GOP appropriations spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said she expects the bill to be ready for the House floor the week of Dec. 8.
Appropriators are naturally protective of the appropriations process, with House Republicans on the committee in particular intent on shielding their omnibus-in-progress from mischief-makers. They could push back the plan to separate immigration funding from the rest of the omnibus, given that the idea is being pushed from outside their inner circle — by Price and other rank-and-file lawmakers.
It's too early to assess whether this plan could pass in the Senate, still controlled by Democrats, or get signed by Obama, who has promised to veto any bill that undermines his immigration executive actions.
It's also unclear whether it — or any other plan — could pass without help from House Democrats, who could balk at the concept.
"This isn't a legitimate tactic and won't accomplish anything," said one Democratic leadership aide in an email Tuesday. "Their own [Appropriations] Committee agrees. This will just waste more time. If they want to debate immigration policy next year, they can debate the Senate's comprehensive bill or bring their own bills to the floor. There's plenty of opportunity to debate this issue without an earlier expiration for just one piece of the government."