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Big Bills vs. Little Bills

02/23/2015 08:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015
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The Senate just voted for a fourth time to open debate on a budget bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, coupled together by the House with poison-pill language to block President Obama's new policies on immigration. For the fourth time, the bill failed to gain the 60 votes necessary to move forward. This time around, Republicans could only muster 47 votes in favor of the legislation -- fewer than any of the previous three times the Senate had voted on it. (The bill has never even gotten 55 votes, much less 60, and the only bipartisanship has come from one Republican voting with the Democrats, for those of you keeping score at home.)

The reason the fourth vote was held is a simple one: Mitch McConnell is stalling. He is buying time until the last minute looms, which will happen later this week. Republicans will not back themselves out of their self-induced corner until the absolute last possible opportunity to do so arrives. What is amusing in this contest of wills is that the endgame depends not on a fight between Obama and the Republicans but on the outcome of the power struggle between John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Perhaps "power struggle" is the wrong term; what it really amounts to is "avoiding being the tea party's scapegoat." One way or another, there will be conservative blame. That blame will be laid at the feet of whichever Republican leader is seen to cave first, and neither McConnell nor Boehner wants to be that target. This is why absolutely nothing productive is going to happen until much later in the week.

There are other amusing aspects to this standoff, seen from the point of view of the Democrats. Republicans, now that they are in power in the Senate, have shifted their tactics and their rhetoric accordingly. What this means is that they are now all in favor of procedures they used to be dead-set against, and they are now horrified at the use of procedures they used to enthusiastically embrace. In other words, the hypocrisy is on full display, at least for anyone who remembers what Republicans have been saying for the past few years.

The best example of this is how Republicans now talk about the filibuster. When they were in the minority, they brought a whole new era to the Senate, one in which even the most routine of bills had to gain 60 votes to move. This expansion of the filibuster was unprecedented in American history, as Senate Republicans filibustered literally hundreds of bills. Now, however, they are decrying the use of the filibuster by Democrats. They whine and whinge about how unfair having to get 60 votes to move legislation now is, after being the filibuster champions for the past few Congresses. They are desperately trying to portray Democrats now availing themselves of the filibuster as being some sort of radicals for using the parliamentary tool that they themselves used so effectively up until two months ago. Their complaints are downright laughable, but Boehner and his ilk seem unaware of this hypocritical hilarity contained within their public statements.

Republican whining about the filibuster isn't the only amusing spin they're now trying to sell, however. Remember their rage when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") passed? One major complaint (out of many) from the Republicans was that the law was passed on a party-line vote; in the end, not a single Republican voted for it. This was supposed to be the mark of a bad law, being partisan as all get-out, and Republicans denounced the fact that Democrats had "jammed the bill down the throat of the American people" without any hint of bipartisanship.

Well, now that Republicans are in the lead, there is absolutely zero effort to get Democrats on board other than holding a department's budget hostage. A certain percentage of congressional Republicans (most of them in the House) have convinced themselves that, magically, at the last minute, a whole bunch of Senate Democrats will suddenly see the light and vote for their bill. There's really no other reason Mitch McConnell has held four votes on the same bill in the past week. In each vote the result was the same. Democrats did not cross the aisle. The only Senate votes for the bill were Republican votes. In other words, using their previous terminology, Republicans are trying to pass a purely partisan bill on a large and important issue. Remember when they were against that sort of thing?

The third biggest irony (or hypocrisy) of the Republican position on the DHS bill comes from the fight that preceded it (and should indeed supersede it) on immigration reform. Almost two years ago the Senate actually passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill. It got an impressive and bipartisan 68 votes. The bill was sent to the House, where it died. At the time, the big complaint from House Republicans was that the bill was "too big." This was also a complaint often heard about the Obamacare bill: It had too many pages and too many words and therefore was beyond the comprehension abilities of the House Republicans. That would sound like a slur if it were not, in fact, exactly what they were arguing at the time.

The relative bigness of bills had never before been much of a partisan issue in Washington, but for some reason the House default position became (to paraphrase Orwell's Animal Farm) "Big bills bad, little bills better." Rather than just hold a vote on the Senate immigration bill (which, by all accounts, would have passed with a bipartisan majority), the House would instead slice and dice the issue into lots of little bills that each dealt with one specific aspect of immigration reform. They were going to start with border security (of course). The Senate bill would have doubled the size of the Border Patrol, but that wasn't good enough for the House Republicans.

After much waiting and many promises, the House did absolutely nothing on comprehensive immigration reform. No small bills passed and were sent over to the Senate. No big bills either. Even with this record of utter failure, the core concept seemed to remain and become the Republican go-to position: The smaller and more targeted a bill is, the better.

Right up until it became time to fund the Department of Homeland Security, of course. Then House Republicans demanded that the two issues be jammed together. The DHS budget could not be passed, the House Republicans vowed, without additional measures to register their anger over President Obama's immigration policies. They've been working hard on immigration reform in the House for years now, with absolutely nothing to show for it -- no bills, big or little -- and now they are determined to make a simple budget bill bigger by hitching immigration policy to it. That this goes counter to their entire strategy for the past few years apparently does not bother them a bit.

In fact, this is likely how the standoff is going to end. Mitch McConnell is going to have to bow to the reality that the big bill the House Republicans sent over cannot pass his chamber (and would get vetoed even if it did). So the only real possible answer is going to be to separate what the House passed into two discrete bills: one that contains a clean budget for DHS and one that allows all the Republicans to vent their rage at President Obama to their heart's content. The first bill will pass both chambers and be signed by the president. The second will not. The only real question is whether the clean budget bill will fund the department all year or just for the next few months (so that Republicans can have this pointless and unwinnable battle all over again later).

Congressional Republicans who cannot do basic math will be outraged. Call them the "Ted Cruz wing" of the Republican Party -- those folks who don't understand the reality of not having a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress and therefore think that merely "holding our ground" will somehow magically win the day for them in the end. They will denounce the tactic of splitting the bills apart, because they will see all their supposed leverage disappear as a direct result.

It serves them right, though. For years now they've been arguing against big, comprehensive bills and insisting that the best bills are the smallest ones, targeted to one individual issue (or even sub-issue). So it is now amusing for Democrats to watch them try to defend their big bill, just as it will be amusing to watch them howl later this week when it gets split in two. All a Democrat will have to do to really rub it in will be to affect a mock-surprised tone of voice and say, "But you've been saying all along that immigration reform can only be done one tiny step at a time! Why are you now so upset at such a targeted bill?" Then stand back and watch the apoplexy.

 

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