By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Congress ended the latest crisis over funding the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday after Speaker John A. Boehner switched course, abandoning the GOP’s strategy of trying to tack on restrictions to President Barack Obama’s immigration plan.
Conservatives were outraged that the embattled speaker declined to continue their fight against the immigration actions that many Republicans view as an overreach of executive authority. They staged a series of procedural votes to prevent final approval. But the bill’s final passage allows GOP leadership to move away from a prolonged standoff that threatened the party’s image as Homeland Security funds were set to expire at the end of the week.
The vote was 257-167 after Boehner was forced to leave his conservative flank behind and reach across the aisle for support from Democrats led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — something Boehner has been reluctant but repeatedly forced to do on major legislation.
“I am as outraged and frustrated as you at the lawless and unconstitutional actions of this president,” Boehner told his majority, as he announced his decision early Tuesday at a private meeting, according to a person in the room not authorized to discuss the session on the record.
But facing another midnight Friday deadline to fund the department or risk a shutdown, giving in was the best course of action, he said.
“I believe this decision — considering where we are — is the right one for this team, and the right one for this country,” Boehner said.
Just 75 Republicans voted to approve the measure; no Democrats opposed it.
Obama was expected to swiftly sign the bill into law. The Senate, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), approved the measure last week in a bipartisan vote, leaving Boehner few options. The bill will fund the big Homeland Security Department, which oversees the nation’s vast domestic security and anti-terrorism apparatus, through Sept. 30.
The sudden change of course arrived none too soon for Republican leaders who endured criticism for failing to control their majority now that the party has control of Congress for the first time in eight years.
The strategy of using the funding bill to force Obama to back down on his immigration plan has consumed the first two months of the new Congress, escalating the party’s tough rhetoric against Latinos and other minority groups the party is trying to court in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
That approach failed in the Senate, where Democrats blocked repeated attempts by McConnell to advance the legislation with restrictions on Obama’s plan to protect from deportation up to 5 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
“Unfortunately, the fight was never won in the other chamber,” Boehner said. “Democrats stayed united and blocked our bill, and our Republican colleagues in the Senate never found a way to win this fight.”
Boehner tried to persuade his rank-and-file to turn their attention to the court fight over Obama’s plan, which was temporarily halted this month by a Texas judge. The administration is fighting the judge’s order.
“The good news is that the president’s executive action has been stopped, for now,” Boehner told Republicans in the closed session. “This matter will continue to be litigated in the courts, where we have our best chance of winning this fight.”
But that offered no salve to the GOP’s conservative flank, which has been dissatisfied with Boehner’s tenure as speaker. They staged a series of procedural maneuvers, including forcing a partial reading of the bill, as a floor fight broke out between Republicans. Some have grumbled that another leader may be better — though they have been unable to coalesce around an alternative choice.
“We need to stand up, use the power of the purse,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who led the floor challenge.
“It’s disappointing,” said Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN). “I hoped we’d be able to continue the fight.”
“We just have to keep fighting on all levels to prevent illegal executive amnesty,” added Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana.
A funding cutoff would have furloughed some Homeland Security employees but forced most others to work without pay. The department oversees the Border Patrol, airport screenings and other crucial security programs, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had pleaded with Congress to provide stable funding.
More pragmatic Republicans appeared relieved that the potentially damaging episode was over, for now, as they party tries to return to its agenda.
“Having a clean DHS bill will allow us move forward on not only this issue but other issues here in the future,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA). “My thought has always been that we do not think what the president has done is constitutional, but that is something we should address in an immigration bill.”