By Seung Min Kim
December 12, 2014
Conservatives began the lame-duck session enraged over President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration and hell-bent on unraveling the moves they saw as illegal, unconstitutional and just plain wrong.
Now they’re ending the year frustrated at their own party’s leaders, who they think cut them out of the funding process and fumbled a chance to pick apart Obama’s immigration actions as soon as they were announced by not using the must-pass funding bill to undo it.
So as the party prepares to take the majority in both chambers next year, conservatives are sure to hold Speaker John Boehner and the GOP leadership to their word that now that the “cromnibus” spending bill has passed in the House, they’ll take the fight with the president into 2015.
A clearly put out Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) groused: “We call it the crummybus.”
“If the other team on the field – Barack Obama and the Democrats who promote illegal aliens over American citizens – stop us, then you punt,” Brooks said, using a football analogy. “But you punt on fourth down, not first down. And right now, the House leadership, for whatever reason, thinks it’s best to punt without running a play.”
Conservatives ticked at the bill almost got to see it go down. The massive bill barely squeaked through a procedural vote earlier Thursday and then the House went dark for hours before leaders were confident enough votes were in place.
Republican Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said they devised a plan and presented it to Boehner: a 60-day CR for all government agencies with language that would undo Obama’s immigration actions. They didn’t get their way.
“We almost brought the rule down,” Bachmann said Thursday. “We almost won. But then you heard the bones breaking, with the arms that were twisted. But we almost won.”
The House GOP’s plan allows Obama’s directive to defer deportations and give work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants to continue as planned over the next couple of months and wait until January, when a reinforced Republican majority enters the House and the party takes over the Senate, to attack the administration’s immigration policy.
But that’s far from sufficient to sooth irate conservatives, who wanted their leadership to use the funding measure to include riders that would block the immigration actions – a recipe that could have led to a government shutdown. Top congressional Republicans were firm on avoiding shutdown showdowns this winter, indicating that the sway conservatives had over the rest of their party leading up to the October 2013 shutdown has declined.
The leadership-backed funding bill, or “cromnibus” – a mash-up of a continuing resolution (CR) and an omnibus spending bill – passed the House Thursday on a 219-206 vote following a considerable delay when it became clear that the votes weren’t there to pass.
It keeps the government open through September save for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees most of the administration’s immigration policies, whose funding runs out at the end of February. Conservatives mostly struck out in their demands, save for pushing the DHS funding cutoff up from March to Feb. 27, after they made the case that by then some of the implementation for Obama’s actions would have begun.
When asked to describe his level of frustration with the funding drama, King looked up at the ceiling in the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor. “It’s up there somewhere,” he answered — in other words, the level was high.
The rash of conservative complaints about the so-called cromnibus ran the gamut. One common grumble was that they didn’t have enough time to read what turned out to be a fat, 1,603-page bill. Conservatives also failed to include a rider that may have allowed corporations to duck Obama’s contraceptive coverage rules, and they felt they weren’t consulted early enough in the process.
But it was the fight over immigration that left conservatives the most exasperated.
Obama announced a sweeping administration directive last month that would protect upwards of 5 million undocumented immigrants from being deported and grant them work permits based on factors such as longevity in the United States and family ties. The move immediately provoked opposition from Republicans, who pledged action against Obama’s move.
Michigan Republican Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, who lost his primary race and will leave Congress in January, said his “no” vote hinged on Obama’s executive actions because he couldn’t stomach giving Obama a “pass” on them. Earlier Thursday, Bentivolio provided a key “yes” vote for the funding measure to clear a procedural hurdle, but that was it.
“They are compromising on things like amnesty that I just cannot support,” Bentivolio said. “I have minorities in my district … that can’t get a job, even laying brick, because now we’re going to have an influx of new labor.”
But some were also annoyed with how their own leadership managed the process.
Conservatives had been mollified during recent contentious legislative battles over Islamic militants and funding for border security when House Majority Whip Steve Scalise reached out earlier in the process to hear concerns that far-right members had with the bills.
But Scalise – a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the House GOP’s right plank — didn’t bring the hardline members into the fold with the spending bill, multiple GOP lawmakers said. That irritated conservatives even before the funding language was unveiled nearly a week later.
One Republican member said: “One of the reasons everyone is so pissed is they never reached out.”
“On the immigration debate [in July], they only listened when the bill was falling apart,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said. “We ought to be doing things differently. They ought to be listening to all people … So I’m very frustrated.”
Scalise, the third-ranking House Republican, told reporters after the cromnibus passed the House late Thursday that the new GOP Congress would be ready to fight Obama on the executive actions in the new year.
“The House did its work,” Scalise said. “Tonight we set the stage for a battle with the president on this illegal actions on immigration when we have a Republican Senate in just a few weeks.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said Republican leaders vowed to “fight tooth-and-nail” against the White House’s immigration policies when meeting with members, but that promise fell flat.
“We have one tool right now and that’s the appropriations process,” he said. “At least let us have a vote on it. [Americans] won’t understand doing nothing until February when the deadline for [enrollment on executive actions] will be over and done with.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that will carry out the bulk of Obama’s executive actions, has not yet announced when it will begin taking applications from immigrants who could qualify for deferred deportations and work permits. But DHS has said the agency will begin taking applications for the new deferred action program focused on parents within six months of Obama’s Nov. 20 announcement. For an expansion of a separate deferred action program for young undocumented immigrants, it’s three months.
Looking beyond the government spending bill, House conservatives are preparing a vote to stop those actions. The measure will be similar to an amendment offered by South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) in the House Rules Committee earlier this week that would prohibit Obama from carrying out any of his executive actions on immigration. The vote won’t come until January.
“Whether you agree or disagree with what the president did on immigration, we should all be concerned about the manner in which the president acted,” Mulvaney said. “None of us benefit from legislating by executive order.”
But ultimately, even some of the most conservative members of the conference relented and voted for the spending bill Thursday because they wanted to avoid a government shutdown and because they believed Republicans would be able to take a tougher line against Obama’s immigration actions once the GOP assumes control of the Senate in January.
Others believed the mere fact that the shorter funding leash for DHS is in the mix is due to the conference’s hardliners. Still, others saw the less-than-desired outcome as due in part to their own flawed strategy.
“I think that conservatives have had a chance to put input into it,” one House Republican said, talking anonymously to speak candidly. “It’s just that some elements of our own conference have wanted to go so far that they forced our leadership into a position where we actually get less of what we want.”
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