While most of the GOP-watching world (your correspondent included) spent the last 24 hours zeroed in on the antics at CPAC—Donald Trump said some things! The Duck Dynasty guy said some things! There were millennials!—Capitol Hill offered its own drama. On Friday night, at the last possible moment, Congress managed to squeak through legislation to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded. But don’t worry if you missed it; the compromise is just a weeklong patch, which means we may very well have a replay of the same drama in seven short days.
More importantly, the funding-fight fiasco could lead to a major political casualty: John Boehner’s speakership. If that happens (and admittedly, it’s a very big if), Boehner would be the second member of the House Republican Leadership to be dethroned in less than 10 months, and it would indicate that some public policy differences within the Republican party are lethally irreconcilable.
“The Speaker has the strong support of the overwhelming majority of House Republicans—and he’s not going anywhere,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel in an email.
Even though the possibility still seems remote, the fact that we’re even talking about it is telling, and it’s a significant indicator of how fraught the GOP’s divide over immigration has become.
Here’s how we got here: Last summer, a few months before the midterm elections, President Obama promised to take unilateral executive action that would defer deportations and provide work authorization for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. The idea was immediately controversial and didn’t poll particularly well, and some vulnerable Democrats representing red states persuaded the president to postpone the move until after the November elections.
Republicans pounced. The president’s plans gave them a rare moment of near-total unity on the immigration issue, and his timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Many Republican candidates made opposition to the president’s move the centerpiece of their campaigns, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus promised Tea Party activists that the party would fight it tooth and nail, and the GOP proceeded to coast to historic wins. A few weeks later, the president announced that his executive action was going full steam ahead.
So if Boehner and his fellow Hill Republicans were to cave on the fight over the president’s executive action—whatever “cave” actually means in this situation—then many grassroots activists would feel cheated and deeply betrayed. This brings us to the question of DHS funding. Many on the Hill have argued that the best way to nip the president’s executive action in the bud is to do so by using legislation that funds the DHS to prevent it from implementing the president’s policy.
Hiccup: Democrats filibustered that kind of legislation in the Senate (you can read more at Politico), so the upper chamber instead passed a bill to fund the DHS, sans caveats, for just a week. And at basically the last second on Friday night, the House passed the same legislation and the president signed it. So DHS lives to be funded another day.
Before that happened, though, Boehner faced an excruciating defeat. He tried to pass a bill that would have funded the department for three weeks, but failed to get it through the House when dozens of Republicans defected. The Hill dubbed the defeat “humiliating.” Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, who was with Boehner on that vote, told Huffington Post that the loss was “a tough, tough, significant, emotional event for our conference right now.”
So there’s no dearth of emotions and sharp feelings among House Republicans at the moment. And CNN reported that if Boehner allows a vote on a bill to fund the DHS without blocking the president’s action, then conservative representatives may move to vacate the chair, which would threaten his speakership.
Professor Larry Larmer of the University of Wisconsin-Extension writes that, “When the chair is vacated, the chairperson’s rights of participation are the same as those of any other member.”
“Upon vacating, the chairperson is not permitted to resume the duties of presiding until the issue pending at the time of vacating is no longer before the group,” Larmer continued.
It’s not the kind of parliamentary procedure that gets whipped out every day, and CNN didn’t elaborate on how a motion to vacate the chair could remove Boehner from the speakership. Parliamentarian Nancy Sylvester defines vacating the chair as “To temporarily relinquish the chair so that the presiding officer can participate in debate.”
Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, who was a vocal critic of the Tea Party tactics used during the October 2013 shutdown, isn’t having it. He leveled pointed criticism at his colleagues via CNN.
“I think a lot of people better get serious about governing and it’s time for all of these, you know D.C. games to end,” he said. “I mean all these palace coups or whatever the hell is going on around here has to end, and we have to get down to the business of governing."
We’ll see how that goes next week.