WASHINGTON – Republicans vowing to govern effectively as a congressional majority failed a fundamental test Friday evening, when House leaders could not pass a temporary measure to avert a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, leaving lawmakers scrambling for a solution before money was to run out at midnight.
In a stunning and humiliating setback for Speaker John A. Boehner and his leadership team, the House voted 224-203 against their plan to extend funding for the department for three weeks.
The bill was defeated during a tense evening vote on the House floor, despite leadership optimism that, after a day of arm-twisting behind the scenes, they had the muscle to win a narrow victory.
The defeat for House Republican leaders came after the Senate passed its own legislation in the morning to fund the department through the fiscal year - even though senators fully expected the House to pass their own temporary three-week measure.
In the aftermath of the vote, the House Republican leadership team huddled to come up with a new approach, but its options were limited given the rebellion by its more conservative members against supporting any measure that would not halt President Obama’s immigration policies. The original legislation passed by the House essentially gutted those policies.
At one point, as the legislation stalled, Boehner walked wordlessly from the chamber, his head down.
Friday’s crisis represented a perilous situation for the speaker, who since taking control of the House in 2011 has struggled to unite his fractious rank-and-file on spending and policy issues. Boehner wants to avoid a shutdown for which he knows Republicans would be blamed, but he cannot risk getting out too far ahead of his conservative members, who are dug in against the president.
For Boehner, said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, a Democratic leader, “Homeland Security is the security of his gavel, and tonight it’s less secure.”
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, in a statement called on House Republicans to pass the Senate’s funding bill.
“The Republican Congress has shown that it simply cannot govern,” Reid said. “Two months into the Republican Congress, we are already staring a Homeland Security shutdown square in the face, even as terrorists around the world threaten to strike America.”
The impasse over the Homeland Security agency reflects a broader fight in Congress over Obama’s immigration policies. Republicans are trying to attach restrictions on Obama’s executive action on immigration to the department’s funding measure.
But it also exposed rifts between House and Senate Republicans, who struggled in recent weeks to agree on a pragmatic path forward to both keep the agency running and express their displeasure with the president’s recent immigration action.
“We should have never fought this battle,” said Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill. “In my view, in the long run, if you are blessed with the majority, you are blessed with the power to govern. If you’re going to govern, you have to act responsibly.”
After the Republicans gained control of the Senate and increased their margins in the House in the November elections, both Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, promised to reverse Congress’ pattern of hurtling from crisis to crisis, even over matters like appropriations that were once relatively routine. But in their first big test, the Republican leaders often seemed to be working from different playbooks - at times verging on hostility, with each saying it was time for the other chamber to act.
The fight over the Homeland Security funding – coupled with a separate revolt by House conservatives – also upended Republican plans to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the 2001 education law that was a signature domestic achievement of President George W. Bush.
The Republican leadership had expected to pass a bill Friday to drastically reduce the role of federal government in public education, setting up a confrontation with Obama, who has threatened a veto. But the vote was put off after Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group, campaigned against the measure, saying it did not do enough to limit Washington’s authority.