Math class?

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Senate Math Confuses House Republicans

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Is our House Republicans learning?

The Republican Conference is preparing for a key test later this week, when funding for the Department of Homeland Security runs out. In January, the House passed a DHS spending bill that also blocked President Barack Obama’s executive actions to defer deportations and make work permits available for several million undocumented immigrants, including "Dreamers" shielded by his 2012 executive action. Democrats have repeatedly filibustered that plan in the Senate and are insisting that the House fund DHS without the extraneous immigration provisions.

It typically takes 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate. Republicans only have 54. The question some are asking is whether Speaker John Boehner's troops will comprehend that math by Friday's funding deadline.

“This might be a tough learning experience for House Republicans to understand that Senate Republicans might have a majority, but not enough for the 60 votes it takes to pass almost everything there,” said Republican consultant Ron Bonjean in the Wall Street Journal. “Eventually they are going to have to pass a short-term fix or completely fold before or after a shutdown.”

Speaking on Fox News earlier this month, conservative pundit George Will did not sound optimistic about the ability to learn such complex concepts so quickly.

The House keeps sending to the Senate a bill it knows cannot be passed by the Senate. And when Mr. Boehner said to you the House has to do its work, that's not its work to send this -- futile gestures that make the Republican base feel good. ... We can't explain to the Republican base how the system works. Well, they better learn how to explain that. That's called leadership.

Leadership, arithmetic, however it's labeled the impasse remains a conundrum. Way back in the first week of February, the New York Times reported:

Some Republicans acknowledge that the immigration aspects of the Homeland Security bill will have to be stripped out. The question they cannot resolve is how to get conservative lawmakers to realize that. Some have suggested that the repeated Senate votes that all end the same way, in defeat, will help drive that point home.

So far, Senate votes have produced three defeats, yet the point remains emphatically undriven.  Nor has a recent CNN/ORC poll showing Republicans would receive the greater share of blame for a DHS shutdown altered the House's intransigence.

Some Republican members of the House would like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to abolish the filibuster, which would enable Senate Republicans to pass the DHS bill with a 51-vote majority. Of course, Obama would then veto the legislation, making the Republican victory very brief. Barring that -- or a complete Democratic capitulation for no particular reason whatsoever -- it seems the Senate will attempt to deliver another arithmetic lesson.

Earlier this month, Freshman Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia made a valiant effort to that end. “They explained to us how the Senate process works, and we were glad to have some of our former colleagues do that,” Representative Bradley Byrne of Alabama told the Washington Post. “From this House member’s perspective, and I think that I reflect the vast majority of the members of our conference," Byrne added, "the Senate needs to do its job. Period.”

The lesson didn't go well. To do its job (with or without a period) the Senate majority will need 60 votes, and the House legislation stands little prospect of attracting more than 54. “Sooner or later, we’re going to have to accept reality,” Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania told the New York Times. Dent is one of the Republican Conference's last moderates. In the House these days, that means you understand that 54 is not the same as 60.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net