Politics & Policy

Boehner Pays Back the Base

(Alex Wong/Getty)
Conservatives who supported cromnibus and returned Boehner the gavel now take the House lead against Obama's amnesty.

When House Speaker John Boehner needed the votes to pass the $1.1 trillion “cromnibus” in the final hours before the government ran out of money, he turned to an unlikely ally: Representative Lou Barletta (R., Penn.), an immigration hawk who opposed the bill because it did not do anything meaningful to thwart President Obama’s executive amnesty. Now, Barletta and his allies in the right flank of the GOP are about to get something in return: a tough response to President Obama’s executive amnesty, set to be introduced on the House floor on Friday.

Boehner needed Barletta because the twelve Republicans in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation had agreed to follow Barletta’s lead and his vote. To win their votes, Boehner promised Barletta that, come January, the Keystone Stater would play a leading role in writing the House’s response to Obama’s immigration orders.

“It was a crossroads moment for me,” Barletta tells National Review Online. “There could not have been a tougher vote for someone like me to take than the one I took in December to vote for the cromnibus without the opportunity to defund the president’s action.”

The bargain is only one example of the dynamic described by multiple Republican lawmakers that has played out as House Republicans plot their response to the executive amnesty: Far from marginalizing the conservative wing of the conference, the fights have left both Republican rebels and GOP leadership with an urgent need to counter Obama’s immigration orders in a manner that will mollify frustrated activists.

“Members who voted for the cromnibus and Boehner are getting killed and really want to demonstrate a strong constitutional response to Obama,” one Republican congressman tells NRO.

Barletta, Representative Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), and other immigration hawks think they’re about to get one. Multiple sources tell NRO that the House Republican conference is on the cusp of introducing legislation that will — at a minimum — withhold funding for Obama’s most recent executive orders on immigration. More likely, it will also take aim at a series of perceived White House overreaches related to the November executive actions.

Over the last two days, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) and House Whip Steve Scalise (R., La.) have moderated a series of debates between dozens of Republicans about how to undermine Obama’s executive actions. At the end of a Thursday-afternoon meeting, the third in two days, McCarthy summarized the consensus of the conference. The bill he outlined, according to three House Republicans who participated in the meeting, would withhold funding for Obama’s November orders; for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that contributed to the summer border crisis; and also for two memoranda that are predicates for DACA that were written by Obama appointee and former Immigrations and Customs Enforcement director John Morton. The bill is on pace to be filed Friday so that the House can vote on it next Tuesday without violating the Republicans’ rule that lawmakers must have at least 72 hours to read a bill before casting their votes.

“He seemed eager to get this on the floor — fallout from the cromnibus was severe,” one Republican lawmaker said of McCarthy. Salmon concurred, adding that his constituents are “very unhappy” about his vote for Boehner. “I took a big bullet for [him],” he says. Now, “I can go back to [Boehner], and I can use that to fight for the things that I believe in and be a better, more effective conservative.”

#page#Negotiations have moved quickly since Boehner defeated a challenge to his speakership on the House floor Monday. One advantage of introducing legislation swiftly is that House Republicans will have their position staked out in advance of the Joint Republican Retreat with Senate colleagues, which takes place next Thursday and Friday.

The House bill should have broad support, say several GOP lawmakers, though it won’t be unanimous. Representative Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.) suggested that the House should pass legislation that keeps the focus on Obama’s most recent executive orders, which represent the most significant departure from the law. That argument carried weight with House members who expect some Senate colleagues — especially Republicans running for reelection in blue states — to resist the broader package. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.) and Representative Jeff Denham (R., Calif.) were even more vocal in their call for a narrow bill, but that is no surprise given that the two voted against ending the controversial DACA program during the summer border crisis.

Two Republicans tell NRO that House leaders, particularly Scalise, prefer to open the debate with their boldest request, rather than “negotiating with ourselves.” One source paraphrased the whip as saying: “Let’s knock off trying to figure out what the Senate is going to agree to and let’s work our will,” adding that Scalise wants the legislation to withhold funding for the DACA program. “This is really a breath of fresh air,” the Republican lawmaker says.

Although House leaders balked Wednesday at the idea of including in the legislative package an attack on the two Morton memoranda, they were changing their minds by Thursday afternoon. The reason? They worry that funding the policies outlined in the two Morton memos — policies that helped lay the groundwork for Obama’s subsequent executive orders — might undermine a legal challenge to those executive orders.

“The whole message that we’re going to be carrying is not an anti-immigrant or anti-immigration message, but anti-unconstitutional action,” says one lawmaker who participated in meetings where the issue was debated.

That doesn’t mean that GOP centrists surrendered unconditionally to the party’s right flank. The legislation drafted by Barletta, along with Representatives Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) and Lamar Smith (R., Texas), would also prohibit the administration from issuing work permits. That provision was written to ensure that American workers don’t have to compete for jobs with illegal immigrants, who cost employers less because they don’t qualify for Obamacare benefits. As of Thursday afternoon, McCarthy was “reluctant” to include that language, because he doesn’t want to risk shifting the focus from the immigration orders to Obamacare. The discussion is ongoing, though, and other Republicans are expected to offer amendments on the floor next week addressing that issue as well as the standards by which the president determines which criminal illegal immigrants are a top priority for deportation.

“As Kevin McCarthy has always said: First and foremost, defund the president’s illegal executive action; but, second, put something on the floor that unites us and divides them,” a Republican congressman tells NRO.

The drafting process is still under way, but conservative opponents of Obama feel confident that leadership will not disappoint them at this point.

“This is it: We’re at the battle; it’s happening,” Barletta says. “This has to be the day.”

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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