The leaders of the Republican Congress never wanted it to be like this: another cycle of lurching from crisis to crisis, fueling the impression that the GOP cannot govern.
But two months into the new Congress, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are struggling to maintain their grip on power and their ability to carry out the lofty political agenda that they promised voters last fall.
In a late-night drama Friday, Congress barely averted letting money run out at Homeland Security, which includes agencies that oversee the nation’s borders, customs enforcement, airport screenings, presidential security and other critical responsibilities. As the midnight deadline approached, the House and Senate finally agreed to a one-week funding measure that only prolongs the uncertainty. President Obama signed the bill just before midnight.
Over the next week, lawmakers will face another threat to shut down Homeland Security from conservatives convinced they can use the issue to stop President Obama’s plan to shield millions of immigrants from deportation. It’s a battle GOP leaders had desperately sought to avoid.
“They have to figure out how to get on a more stable footing,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for the conservative group Heritage Action for America. “That’s what they’re struggling with now. Are they going to continue moving in these fits and starts until — how many months is it until the 2016 election?”
The challenge is particularly acute for Boehner, who appears unable to control his conservative wing even after the November election gave him the largest majority in decades.
Friday afternoon, some 52 conservatives defied Boehner on a measure that would have funded Homeland Security for three weeks. The rebellion now raises questions as to whether Boehner can continue as speaker.
The mutiny was also a rebuke to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who ran for the post assuring party leaders his conservative credentials could help keep rank-and-file members in line and deliver their votes when necessary.
Many of the more pragmatic Republicans were livid at the conservatives’ coup against the leadership’s bill. Though not a solution, the three-week measure would have bought more time to find one.
It was only after McConnell intervened late Friday, offering the one-week compromise bill, that Congress was able to swerve around the crisis. Boehner was forced to reach across the aisle for Democratic votes, defying his conservative flank — something he has been reluctant to do.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who opposed both funding bills, said conservatives have gained clout since they almost toppled Boehner in January — delivering more votes against him than any speaker since the 1920s.
“That makes him pretty nervous,” Huelskamp said.
Asked last week if he felt any threat to his position, Boehner shrugged off the question with a nonchalance that has characterized his turbulent tenure as speaker.
“Heaven sakes, no. Not at all,” he said. “You know, the House, by nature and by design, is a hell of a lot more rambunctious place than the Senate — much more.”
On Saturday, Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, said the speaker “has the strong support of the overwhelming majority of House Republicans — and he’s not going anywhere.”
But with leadership taking flak, it’s far from clear if the new Congress, with the first GOP majority in eight years, will be able to deliver on the thorny policy issues — trade, tax reform, budget cuts — they promised voters.
Congress delivered on one pledge, approving a bill to start construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. President Obama fulfilled his vow too, quickly issuing a veto.
But immigration has dominated debate, and likely will do so for the foreseeable future as conservatives try to end Obama’s executive actions to defer deportations for up to 5 million immigrants who are in the country illegally, but otherwise working and leading lawful lives.
Although a federal judge in Texas has halted implementation of the plan until courts can consider its legality, conservatives believe their best chance of killing it is by using the appropriations bill that funds enforcement of immigration laws.
“That’s exactly where we’re supposed to have this battle,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), who voted against both the one-week and the three-week funding bills. “Our power in Congress is the power of the purse.”
Other Republicans were outraged at a strategy that almost forced the 22 agencies in Homeland Security to cut services and furlough thousands of workers starting Saturday, and to order several hundred thousand people to work without pay until the dispute is resolved.
“I prefer to be in the arena voting than trying to placate a small group of phony conservative members who have no credible policy proposals and no political strategy to stop Obama’s lawlessness,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).
He focused his ire on a group of lawmakers that often meet secretly to challenge leadership.
“While conservative leaders are trying to move the ball up the field, these other members sit in exotic places like basements of Mexican restaurants and upper levels of House office buildings, seemingly unaware that they can’t advance conservatism by playing fantasy football with their voting cards,” he said.
Some Republicans held out hope that the bitter fallout from the latest shutdown crisis would encourage cooler heads to prevail in the week ahead.
“Hopefully what happened here … was a sobering moment,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who supported the speaker’s bill. “Now it’s time to get on with taking care of our responsibilities for the American people.”
First the lawmakers will need to decide whether to fund the Homeland Security Department before the money runs out again at midnight Friday.
Staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.