Pragmatism Is the New Extremism for House Republicans
To understand why the current peace in the House Republican conference is so curious, you need to think back to the fall of 2013. At that time, the party’s base—inside and outside of Congress—wanted to smother the Affordable Care Act in its cradle. They wanted to change the must-pass appropriations bill so that “no funds” could implement the ACA.
At the time, Majority Leader Eric Cantor tried to trick conservatives into a protest vote. There’d be one measure to defund Obamacare; there’d be a separate vote on funding the government. Cantor hoped that would satisfy the conservatives who’d signed a letter written by North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, and pledged to defund the ACA. It didn’t work. “It’s a plan to facilitate the passage of a CR in a way that allows people to claim that they’re defunding Obamacare without actually doing so,” groused Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
Cantor lost out, Lee and Meadows won, and for thirteen days the federal government was shut down in a spat over the ACA. And for most conservatives, the GOP’s fantastic 2014 election wins proved that the shutdown did not hurt them.
Yet the Republican House is sliding into a series of immigration votes that aren’t much different—in terms of challenging the Obama administration—than the 2013 Cantor “hocus pocus.” On Friday, at an hourlong meeting, Republican leaders introduced a package of immigration amendments to the coming $39.7 billion bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans would get to vote on ending the deferred action programs of 2012 and 2014. There’s no guarantee that the amendments will pass, or that if they pass they’ll survive a conference committee.
At the same time, conservatives are introducing their own DACA-defunding bills, untethered to anything that must pass. Iowa Rep. Steve King has offered the succinctly titled Defund Executive Amnesty Act of 2015. Two Alabama Republicans, Rep. Robert Aderholt and Rep. Martha Roby, have offered (respectively) the 44-page Repeal Executive Amnesty Act of 2015 and the three-page Prevention of Executive Amnesty Act of 2015. Roby’s bill echoes the name and text of a 2014 bill from Florida Rep. Ted Yoho, which the House passed while passing a funding bill that didn’t actually touch the immigration orders.
Yoho’s bill was ridiculed by restrictionists. “Even if the Yoho bill had a path to enactment,” wrote NumbersUSA, “and even if the bill weren't riddled with loopholes, Americans understand that amending the law to reign in a lawless President is a pointless endeavor. Instead, Americans expect Congress to use its constitutional power of the purse effectively to prevent President Obama from carrying out his illegal amnesty.”
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, had basically the same critique. “Congress needs to do everything it can to rein in the imperial presidency – not just this incumbent but his successors, as well – by using an all-of-the-above strategy,” Krikorian said in 2014. “Deny, file one or more lawsuits, deny nominees confirmation, and educate the public.”
Yet on Friday, the hardiest conservatives sounded ready to do less with less. “This is a bill that will pass,” Yoho said happily as he left the conference meeting. “It’s good for the American citizens. It’s great for the people who are trying to migrate legally.”
Yoho, who had brushed off the friendly fire at his 2014 bill, suggested that votes on amendments were far better than demands for omnibus bills. “You start putting it all in a bill, you can’t vote on individual portions of it,” he said. “Voting on an amendment, it allows a person to say: I’m not going to support that, or I’m going to support that. You take it a step at a time. It streamlines the process.”
Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie left the meeting talking about the immigration hawks who sounded pleased. “They’re willing to have a more open process,” he said. “[Iowa Rep.] Steve King endorsed it in there, [Florida Rep.] Ron DeSantis, a lot of people. And we still have the option whether to conference it or not. If we don’t see something from the Senate that looks what we had in the House, there may not be room for agreement.”
Republicans, hard-liners especially, simply don’t know, since the situation has changed. Most of them have only served while the Senate was run by Democrats. The brinkmanship of the past and the use of must-pass bills to force policy changes might not be necessary when Mitch McConnell’s Senate is on the other side of the table. Before the election, Republicans were talking about making everything up to the attorney general nomination a test of immigration policy. Now, even Mark Meadows was explaining that the must-pass strategy that seemed so necessary to stop Obamacare wasn’t necessary to end the president’s immigration orders.
“I don’t see the parallels,” said Meadows. “One was law, and the other is an unlawful action. When you approach something that’s unlawful, you have a different strategy that goes after it.”