What Did Conservatives Win in the DHS Battle? Almost Nothing

The “Groundhog Day” experience of House de-funding fights.

Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, center, leaves a House Republican caucus meeting at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Three months ago, when the House of Representatives passed a spending package (the "CRomnibus") that funded President Obama's immigration orders, some hardliners worried they'd lost their chance to block the president. Speaker of the House John Boehner told them not to worry. Better they take a shot in 2015, when Republicans ran the Senate.

"Early on, we’ll make a direct challenge to the president’s unilateral actions on immigration," Boehner said at a Dec. 11, 2014, press conference. "And you can expect that challenge to the president to include real action on border security. The House has already begun work on this issue and we’ll restart that work again next month. We’ll take this fight to the president on the strongest possible ground with new majorities that the American people elected."

Those words rang hollow in the House today. The outcome was so predictable that one congressman, between the key votes that passed a "clean" bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, quietly speculated about how long ago his staff had predicted the outcome. How long had they been saying this, that the DHS funding bill would be stripped of language that defunded the "executive amnesty?" Was it just a week? Longer? 

Certainly, there was no point to the table-banging from conservative groups about how this would be the bill that de-funded Obama's executive orders. The threats had taken on a Potemkin, rote feel. Heritage Action, which key-voted a "no" on the clean DHS bill, explained that "at least seven Democrats expressed concern" with Obama's executive orders. It quoted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on how his Republicans had "the power of the purse." It didn't matter, because McConnell did not want to enter a funding shutdown to advance the conservatives' demands.

What territory did conservatives take in the fight? For the first time, several Republicans speculated that they'd get more done if their Senate colleagues ended the right to filibuster on legislation. "It is incumbent upon conservative Republicans in the Senate to change the rules," South Carolina Representative Mick Mulvaney said during the debates this week. Virginia Representative Morgan Griffith called the Democratic filibusters that prevented the GOP's preferred DHS bill from breaking through the Senate a "perversion of the democratic principle." This past Sunday, even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested that the filibuster could go.

"That's not nuclear, when 57 percent of the American representation says [the bill is] wrong," he said on Meet the Press. "That's not in the Constitution. I think they should change the rules."

McCarthy, Mulvaney and other Republicans failed to move their Senate colleagues. Filibuster form would be "extremely short-sighted," said Arizona Senator Jeff Flake in a short interview last week. Until 2013, Flake himself had served in the House.

Other Republicans suggested that the latest mini-crisis proved that conservatives were breaking away from leadership. The DHS bill was the latest passed by a rump of Republicans and every single Democrat. In remarks to reporters after the vote, Iowa Representative Steve King suggested that the conservative rebellion was the factor to watch.

"We've gone from 52 votes to 60 votes on the pushback to the vote on the motion to table being 140," said King. "Now it's 167. That's the story. From 52 votes deciding they wouldn't go along with leadership, all the way up to 167. There's a growing snowball of conservatives in this conference deciding that the strategy they have been fed isn't the strategy they want to support."

King went on to suggest that the conservative majority could force the issue again, the next time a funding bill came up. "That's amendment opportunities," said King. "That's a lot of amendment opportunities."

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