Opinion: Homeland Security stalemate ends; is it a watershed or a template?

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) walks to the House chamber on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The House passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security without provisions rejecting President Obama's executive actions on immigration.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) walks to the House chamber on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The House passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security without provisions rejecting President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

It took the House GOP leadership a couple of weeks, but it finally conceded defeat Tuesday and allowed a “clean” funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security to come up for a vote. With all 182 Democrats in the Capitol and 75 of the 242 Republicans lining up in favor, the measure passed easily and was sent to President Obama to sign.

The question now is whether the Republican majority has learned not to pick fights they don’t have the votes to win, or whether they’ll overplay their hand again the next time a must-pass bill comes up. Given what we’ve seen the past lour years, the latter seems more likely.

The Homeland Security measure isn’t exactly “clean” because it contains numerous policy changes negotiated by Republican and Democratic appropriators, such as one stepping up the department’s ability to detain people caught crossing the border illegally. What it doesn’t have are the House-passed riders that would have reversed Obama’s temporary deferrals of some deportations.


It’s rare to see House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) bring anything to the floor that doesn’t have at least 218 Republican votes, and rarer still to see anything that most Republicans oppose. But Boehner reportedly told Republicans in a private meeting that they had run out of options. There weren’t enough votes in the House for another stop-gap funding bill, and Senate Democrats wouldn’t let that chamber even consider a measure that rolled back President Obama’s immigration orders.

That brings us to a crucial point that, sadly, continues to be lost on many House Republicans: The filibuster is a very powerful thing. As long as it’s available to Democrats, Republicans won’t be able to move anything through that chamber without the help of at least six members not in their party.

But don’t tell that to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who helped lead the GOP resistance to a clean Homeland Security bill. “We need to stand up, use the power of the purse,” Massie said, according to The Times’ Lisa Mascaro. She also quoted a disappointed Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) saying after the vote, “I hoped we’d be able to continue the fight.”

Why they would want to do so is a complete mystery. House Republicans can’t exercise the aforementioned power of the purse unless they can get a bill through the Senate, where Democrats can stop them dead with a filibuster.

For the record, The Times’ editorial board has long opposed the filibuster rule, calling it undemocratic. One doesn’t have to like the filibuster, however, to acknowledge how it changes the legislative playing field.

Some Republicans seem to believe that the more important a measure is, the more leverage it gives them to extract concessions from Democrats. What we’ve seen repeatedly since 2011, however, is that this simply isn’t true. Democrats are just as willing as Republicans to let a stalemate shut down all or part of the government, confident that the public will continue blaming the GOP for the brinkmanship and shutdowns that have become a way of life in the nation’s capital.


Granted, voters haven’t held a grudge for long. The GOP has done extremely well in House and Senate races during Obama’s terms, particularly when he wasn’t on the ballot. But those results are a little misleading because they ignore how often Republican voters in 2014 picked more pragmatic conservatives over uncompromising would-be members of the shutdown caucus.

At any rate, Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), made it clear after Republicans won the Senate in November that there would be no government shutdowns on their watch. They’re willing to force Senate Democrats to cast multiple votes to tie up must-pass bills such as the Homeland Security funding measure. But they won’t take that extra step and let an agency shut down in the hope that Democrats will cave.

The bottom line is that Republicans have only one way to pass legislation that doesn’t have at least a modicum of bipartisan support, and that’s through a process called budget reconciliation, which does not permit filibusters. It’s not an option often, though; Senate rules require that a reconciliation bill be limited to proposed changes in spending on entitlements (except Social Security), tax revenues or the debt limit.

And even then, that gets them only as far as President Obama’s desk. As hard as it is to overcome or avoid a filibuster, it’s even harder to overturn a veto.

The power limits work both ways, of course. Democrats can’t accomplish anything in the Senate without a lot of Republican help, and they can’t even get a bill to the floor in the House unless the House GOP leadership embraces it.

So, now that we’ve gone through two exercises in partisan stalemate and sandbagging (the other being the Keystone XL pipeline bill), perhaps the two sides can start looking for compromises that give each something that they want. Or they can just keep up what they’ve been doing and hope quixotically for a different result.


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