With the 113th Congress coming to a close, Republicans in the legislature are in a bind. Most genuinely want to exert as much pressure as possible on the president for his unilateral pursuit of amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants via executive order, but lack viable options to roll back this action short of a path that could lead to a government shutdown. Far too many conservatives think that shutdown brinkmanship is exactly what the lame duck Congress should be pursuing.
The strategy Republicans have settled on is essentially to punt the issue of Obama’s immigration actions into the next year, when the GOP will dominate both chambers of Congress. In the interim, House leadership is supporting a bill pushed by conservative Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) that would prevent deferring the deportation of illegal immigrants. Conservatives in both Congress and the grassroots, however, see the vote on this toothless measure as nothing more than an effort to placate the right. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said the maneuver was nothing more than a “meaningless show vote.” He’s not wrong, though he and others must now contend with the fact that the president has threatened to veto even this relatively symbolic measure.
The second stage of this strategy is a funding fight rooted in a strategy concocted by another conservative, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). The dubiously named “Cromnibus,” which is a hybrid continuing resolution and omnibus spending bill, would fund the government through September 2015 while only funding the Department of Homeland Security, the agency which will implement Obama’s executive actions on immigration, until next February.
The White House, which would surely prefer to be able to sign a bill that funds the entire government, is not threatening to veto this plan. “The White House isn’t ruling out the House Republicans’ government funding plan, removing a potential barrier to resolving a fight over funding the government before it runs out of money in eight days,” Politico reported on Wednesday. “The Obama administration wants full funding of the entire government through September, a position White House press secretary Josh Earnest detailed this week. But privately, administration officials view the House proposal as a fallback — as long as Republicans don’t insert legislative language known as riders that restrict Obama’s ability to implement the immigration plan.”
Conservatives who are already mistrustful of Republican leadership in Washington are understandably frustrated with this strategy. They see as a capitulation in the face of a genuine overreach by the executive. They are not without evidence when they express the fear that the GOP will never mount an effective pushback on the administration’s dangerous intemperance, and that they would like nothing more than for conservatives urging stronger action to simply go away. At this stage, however, conservatives must also confront the reality that an effort to de-fund the implementation of Obama’s immigration order before the next Congress is sworn in would be disastrous.
At a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building on Wednesday, Cruz joined Reps. Steve King (R-IA) and Michele Bachmann (R-MN) demanding that Congress should de-fund DHS. “This is a choice between truth and mendacity,” Cruz said of his Republican colleagues whom he noted promised their constituents during the 2014 campaign they would pursue every avenue available to halt the implementation of Obama’s executive actions.
Sound familiar? “I will not vote for a continuing resolution unless it de-funds Obamacare,” Cruz insisted in 2013. He got his wish, and the government shuttered. Within weeks, Republicans saw their party’s favorability rating drop to historic lows. Were it not for the fact that the Affordable Care Act’s implementation was so catastrophically mismanaged, those low ratings might have stayed there.
Would the same thing happen again? It is entirely possible. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will love nothing more than to be able to exercise his authority one final time if he receives a funding measure which seeks to de-fund portions of DHS. The only thing that may resuscitate the favorability ratings of Obama’s deeply unpopular executive order is if he is handed the gift of a government shutdown that would make his order seem popular by comparison.
Republicans who think shutting down the government just days before Christmas might recall that they’ve seen this movie before in 1995 – 1996. A recent CNN/ORC poll shows that the vast majority of the public would view a new shut down for a period of days or weeks as an eventuality that would cause “major problems” or represent a “crisis.” A slimmer majority of respondents, but still a majority, would blame Republicans for a new shutdown while just one-third would blame Obama for this suboptimal condition.
And just for fun, what would happen if Republicans were the beneficiaries of a Christmas Miracle and Democrats including the president did agree to de-fund the implementation of Obama’s executive action before 2015? Probably nothing. The vast majority of DHS employees are deemed essential personnel due to their national security roles, so the de-funding of all or part of that agency would have little short-term effect. Even a more targeted approach, de-funding only the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, would likely be ill-fated. Even though the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service observed it is possible for the House to pursue this measure, it would have next to no impact on an agency that is funded primarily through the imposition of fees.
“In no way does the CRS report contradict anything that we’ve said. It would take an act of Congress to change the underlying statute to restrict the use of fees,” said an aide to the House Appropriations Committee told The Hill, the chairman of which warned weeks ago that the agency could not be shut down via de-funding efforts. “To restrict the fees, a law would have to be passed, which means a presidential signature. Barring that, the agency can continue to collect and use fees without an annual appropriation, meaning that in the event of a government shutdown, the agency would continue to operate, while other functions of government close.”
So Republicans who want to see a de-funding effort, come hell or a government shutdown, are faced with the likely prospect of repeating recent history. For those who insist that this time will be different, what evidence can they present in defense of that claim? Would a political press that has refused to cover Jonathan Gruber’s remarks, a Democratic aide convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault, an Obama bundler charged with child molestation, and Obama’s close associate accused by the Department of Justice of protecting someone charged with defrauding taxpayers (all in the space of just one month) while simultaneously flooding the zone with coverage of an obscure GOP staffer’s Facebook post suddenly warm to the GOP amid a new shutdown? This is simply fanciful.
Those conservatives who suggest that the Republican Party is surrendering in the face of adversity are missing the bigger picture. Republicans will be on more favorable terrain in the 114th Congress when they will enjoy majorities in Congress larger than at any point since the Truman administration. Putting this crucial fight over Obama’s overreach off until the GOP is better positioned is not surrender, it is strategy. Those conservatives who demand that Republican leadership die on every hill upon which they currently stand are advocating for a Pickett’s Charge.
The shutdown experiment was tried. It failed, and those who point to the party’s successes in the midterms as a counterargument cannot account for the fact that it won’t be a midterm electorate that heads to the polls in 2016. It’s time to let the more farsighted tacticians within the party take the reins.