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Republicans' Losing Game on Homeland Security Bill

02/04/2015 05:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

Republicans in Congress have, once again, successfully painted themselves into a corner. Even though they've done exactly this previously (in exactly the same way), they now have absolutely no idea how to get out of this dilemma (which they created for themselves). They've got a few weeks to figure something out, but at the moment it appears they have no clue. That's not just liberal snark talking, either. I've seen multiple Republicans interviewed in the past few days and they all universally offer up some form of: "We have no idea what plan B will be."

Plan A was supposed to be: "Republicans magically make Obama back down on his new immigration policy." Now that's pure liberal snark talking, I will admit. But it's hard to avoid such delicious irony when writing on the subject of how Republicans have been hoist on yet another one of their own petards. In fact, this sweet irony cake is even multi-layered, so all it requires is a little icing before slicing up and serving to all who hunger for that sort of thing. First, there's the irony of the Republicans demanding -- and, indeed, fighting hard for -- a deadline that they are now afraid to use as leverage (because they know it will end badly if they do). There's the irony of Mitch McConnell on deck as the scapegoat for angry House Republicans (replacing Harry Reid as the favored object of their ire). But the biggest irony of all is seeing Republicans attempt to hold hostage the one part of the federal budget that they all normally support wholeheartedly. How, one wonders, did Republicans ever convince themselves that "We're going to force Obama to deport immigrants and secure the border by attempting to defund the agency that deports immigrants and secures the border!" was a viable political plan? It makes no sense on the face of it. It never did.

Republicans are playing a no-win game here. There is absolutely no path out of this thicket of tactical mistakes that leads to any sort of conclusion that will even remotely satisfy the hardliner House Republicans on the issue. Once again, John Boehner (and, to a lesser degree, Mitch McConnell) oversold the chances of victory. Once again, the Tea Partiers showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the way political leverage actually works when your side doesn't control the White House (or veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress). They're about to experience some rampant and inevitable free-ranging disappointment, and the finger-pointing and blame game will surely follow. Boehner did successfully use one politically-astute tactic by allowing the most extreme bill possible to pass in the House, because unlike in the last government shutdown fracas, Mitch McConnell will likely bear the brunt of the Tea Party's wrath rather than Boehner. Look for this dynamic to grow over the next two years, in fact.

Both Boehner and McConnell have been swearing up and down that they're not going to shut down the Department of Homeland Security. If this turns out to be true (they've made such pledges before, only to break them later), then it's merely a matter of the clock running out. The department's funding halts at the end of this month -- which was the whole point of the "cromnibus" bill the lame-duck Congress passed last year. They set up this artificial and completely unnecessary deadline for themselves. In other words, they intentionally picked a political fight that they were always guaranteed to lose.

The first round of this slugfest is now over. The House passed their extreme bill, it was introduced in the Senate, and it was successfully filibustered with one Republican joining the Democratic side to vote against it and one Republican sitting the vote out. This does not add up to 60 votes, to put it kindly. So the bill is now dead, in exactly the same fashion that Republicans successfully killed almost every Democratic bill in the Senate for the past four years. More irony: Republicans are now denouncing this tactic, demanding that "at least we should be able to hold a debate." Nice try, guys -- you almost broke my irony-detector, there!

The extreme House bill can't pass the Senate. The two Republican leaders are still swearing that there will be no shutdown. What this means is that they'll have to pass a "clean" funding bill for the department, which is exactly what both President Obama and the Senate Democrats have been pushing for. There's no other way out of the dilemma -- that's the only "plan B" that's going to work. Even if Republicans could magically convince eight or nine Senate Democrats to vote for the House bill (which is not going to happen), President Obama would just veto it. As I said, this is a losing battle for Republicans, but they haven't seemed to have figured this out yet. The only other option is a partial government shutdown, which would result in an agonizing waiting game which would last right up until Republicans accepted reality and went ahead and passed a clean bill (which is exactly what happened the last time the Republicans shut down the government).

The final bill will likely be created in the Senate. With the 60-vote filibuster bar, compromise will be necessary. Democrats are holding firm that all of the language aimed at undoing Obama's new immigration policy needs to be stripped out of any bill they vote for. It's only a matter of time before McConnell bends to this reality, really.

Of course, it'll probably take until the very last minute for things to move. This is the only way things get done in Congress, these days. This way, Boehner will have to (after making a big show of reluctance) introduce the Senate bill to the House, where it will pass with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes. The Tea Partiers will go ballistic, since that is what they are best at doing. The department will be funded, and the blame game will begin in earnest on the Republican side. The only real question is whether this happens at the last minute, or slightly after the last minute.

The Republican base, if history is any guide, is not going to be happy being schooled in the realities of how Congress actually works. You can almost hear the cries now: "We control both houses of Congress -- why aren't we forcing Obama to bow to our will?" Boehner and McConnell are going to have to explain this to the base, and my guess is that it won't be the only time in the next two years that this reality is going to have to be defined in such a fashion.

This is all self-inflicted, though. It could easily have been avoided, but the Tea Partiers demanded their protest vote against the "tyrannical and unconstitutional" president. But somewhere along the way, they started believing their own rhetoric on how effective their effort would be. The idea was oversold. Once again. Their plan was never going to work. It was doomed from the start. Republicans don't have 60 seats in the Senate, and even if they did they hold nowhere near a veto-proof two-thirds majority in either house of Congress. That is the mathematical reality of the situation. And that reality is why "let's defund Homeland Security" was always going to be a losing game for Republicans. For the next few weeks, they're going to be locked in a Kabuki drama within their own caucus, while they pretend this reality doesn't exist. But at some point, they're going to have to accept the inevitable defeat and pass a clean bill with Democrats' help. That's when the losing Republican game will truly be over. At least, until they paint themselves into another no-win corner, on some future issue.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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