Boehner wrapping up 113th Congress right where he started

Posted at 3:15 PM, Dec 03, 2014

It seems fitting that House Speaker John Boehner should spend the last month of the 113th Congress as he has much of the past two years: Trying to accomplish governing's very basics while avoiding being branded a sell-out to the president his party opposes.

Whether he accomplishes it or not, we won't likely know until next week. But if Boehner is going to enjoy a cushier House GOP majority and Republican Senate control in 2015, he may first have to relive some of the darker moments of his speakership.

The headache this time isn't spending, or Obamacare, or a political gambit involving the debt limit. It's immigration, and House conservatives are doing their best to force Boehner into a confrontation with the White House he'd rather not have.

It was about two weeks ago that President Obama made good on long-held promise – or threat, depending on your point of view – to use executive authority to remove the possibility of deportation from some 5 million undocumented immigrants. The move angered Republicans and enraged conservatives. They want revenge on the president, and they want it now.

And it's the "now" part that's the most problematic. Government funding runs out December 11, and House conservatives are insisting Boehner use the moment to undo Obama's immigration move. The leverage, as it has been in the past, is the threat of a government shutdown. Boehner very much wants to avoid a replay of that political drama as his party is preparing to take full control of Congress next month.

The path to safety for Boehner here isn't an easy one. He could have the House vote on undoing Obama's immigration decision, then try to force Senate Democrats and the president to take the deal or risk being blamed for a shutdown. But that approach appeared problematic and in any event is just the type of shutdown brinksmanship Boehner and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell want to avoid.

So Tuesday, Boehner and his GOP leadership team made their plans known. They'll fund most of the government until the end of September 2015, the rest of the fiscal year – that is, all except the Department of Homeland Security, which runs U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The plan would fund DHS at current levels only thru March. The idea there is to build a bridge to Republican congressional rule, where even more leverage could come to hand.

That plan doesn't go nearly far enough to satisfy House conservatives, so appeasement comes this week in the form of a bill rebuking Obama's executive action and rendering it null and void. Conservative Florida GOP Rep. and frequent Boehner critic Ted Yoho is leading the effort.

The hope is the rebuke will siphon off enough anger on the right to get the government funding bill passed and get GOP leaders to the new year. But so far there are signs House conservatives aren't having it.

"It doesn't do anything," Rep. Mark Meadows, a conservative from North Carolina, told me Tuesday, noting that Senate Democrats can easily turn aside the rebuke.

"You need to do something definitive that is not a show vote," Meadows said.

Democrats didn't make the job any easier for Boehner, either. White House press secretary Josh Earnest made conciliatory comments toward the plan, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pretty much praised it, while noting that the rebuke part of Boehner's plan won't get on the Senate floor this month.

That left nothing standing between Boehner and the conservative wing of his Republican Conference. Thirty Republicans or more may agree with Meadows, and that could force Boehner to turn to House Democrats and their leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or risk the whole thing falling apart.

Even if the plan works, it only forestalls another confrontation with Obama until March, when funding for homeland security would appear to be held hostage to GOP anger over the immigration order.

It's the type of scenario that a giant majority and control of Congress are supposed to avoid. In Boehner's case, it looks like he'll have to go through it one more time, at least.

Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.
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