Politics & Policy

The Appropriators Strike Back

Rep. Hal Rogers (R., Ky.) (Win McNamee/Getty)
Congressional spenders vs. conservatives on Obama’s executive amnesty

House appropriators walked out of a Monday-evening meeting in the Capitol with the understanding that their plan to “clear the decks” by funding government for the next year is caught in a sand trap. What’s stymied them is President Obama’s determination to implement his preferred immigration policies by executive orders — and the insistence of conservative members of their own party that Congress use the power of the purse to thwart them.

“I want a long-term omnibus solution,” Representative Kevin Yoder (R., Kan.) told National Review Online after the meeting, referring to the legislative bundle that includes every appropriations bill needed to fund the government. “I want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to defund or prohibit the president from ignoring our immigration laws.”

That’s debatable. Rank-and-file Republicans have been mulling the conundrum for weeks: How best to undermine, or stop entirely, the president’s planned amnesty. Those on the GOP’s right flank in the House and Senate favor preemptive action: either the passage of a continuing resolution in the lame-duck session that prohibits funding for the executive orders or punting the government-funding fight into next year and then appropriating money for all aspects of government except  the Department of Homeland Security, which will implement the amnesty. House leaders and members of the House Appropriations Committee, however, want to pass legislation that funds the government for the next year. Even the fear that such a bill would give Obama the money necessary to implement those executive orders has not been enough to convince the appropriators to abandon their goal. They believe that any budgetary fight over the orders will end badly: Obama will veto any funding package that ties his hands on immigration, the media will blame the ensuing government shutdown on Republicans, and voters will punish the GOP in 2016.

“The Committee is full steam ahead on negotiating a full-year, twelve-bill omnibus,” an aide told NRO. “There have been zero discussions with leadership about anything else, including a continuing resolution.”

To that end, House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers surprised colleagues at the GOP conference meeting Tuesday with an unexpected proposal. The Kentucky Republican suggested that Republicans pass legislation funding the government, with the intention of rescinding funding for the agencies tasked with implementing the executive orders whenever Obama issues them.

A rescission bill was last passed and signed into law during Bill Clinton’s presidency. “I don’t think any of you have ever seen a rescission bill!” Rogers told reporters after Tuesday’s conference meeting.

Rogers’s proposal is “a surrender to the administration on executive amnesty,” according to a Senate aide who noted that President Obama would have to sign the rescission. But every other plan has “that same essential flaw,” according to another senior Senate aide. Obama would no doubt veto any bill that came to him if it withheld the funding to implement his executive orders. To override his veto, Republicans would have to convince 13 Democrats to break ranks.

Curiously, Rogers presented his rescission proposal to his colleagues as if it were somehow exempt from that reality, according to one lawmaker who wants to deny Obama the funding to implement the executive orders.

“Chairman Rogers just got up and said if we pass an omnibus and then the president does this executive amnesty, he said we can rescind it, and we can rescind it with 218 and 51 and we don’t need the president,” Representative Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.) told Breitbart on Tuesday. “That’s what he just told me. I’ve never heard that before.” A Rogers aide said the chairman never said that.

Given the president’s veto prerogative, the tactic is a longshot. An Appropriations Committee aide acknowledged that Obama would sign the kind of bill Rogers proposes only if Republicans attached it to another “presidential priority.” (Clinton signed the 1995 rescission bill into law as part of a package for emergency funding to respond to the Oklahoma City bombing.) But at least a rescission has historical precedent for working, the aide notes, whereas the GOP took a political hit last year when it attempted to fund all of government except for a top Obama priority.

The appropriators don’t believe that Republican control of the Senate has diminished the political danger of using the power of the purse to withhold funding for something dear to the president. And they believe that tying government funding to a bill that prohibits the implementation of Obama’s executive orders is tantamount to a shutdown strategy. Conservative immigration hawks say they don’t want a shutdown. Instead, they want to pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open until next year. Then, House and Senate Republicans could unite to pass appropriations bills funding the Veterans Affairs Department and other government agencies unrelated to the immigration fight.

“I’d love to see the president veto that,” says the Senate aide who criticized Rogers’s plan. One problem, from the perspective of the appropriators: It takes hundreds of hours of debate to pass such appropriations bills — weeks of the 2015 calendar — especially if House Democrats slow down the process. That would prevent Republicans from proceeding with the rest of their agenda before the onset of the Republican presidential primary season makes it even more difficult to pass legislation. And at the end of that process, Senate Democrats might filibuster those appropriations bills, thereby preventing them from reaching Obama’s desk and keeping the pressure on the GOP to fund the government without fighting the executive orders.

“What’s the next play?” a senior House aide wonders. “I think a big question for a large majority of members is what happens in three months when we have to pass another [continuing resolution]?”

Republicans haven’t settled on an answer to the question, but President Obama’s plan to announce his executive actions on Thursday increases the likelihood that they will pass a short-term continuing resolution in the lame-duck session and continue the debate next year.

“If you can’t cut a deal, then you just stay with what you got,” House Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions (R., Texas) told NRO.

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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