For all the talk of Republican House Speaker John Boehner being trapped by the quarrel over funding the Homeland Security Department, he holds a potential escape key, if he’s willing to use it: cooperative Democrats.
Aides say he doesn’t like it, but Boehner sometimes relies on Democrats to help pass measures that many — and sometimes most — Republicans oppose. They include the January 2013 resolution to the “fiscal cliff” showdown, which 151 House Republicans opposed. The Democrats’ 172 “yes” votes saved the measure, averting tax increases on most U.S. workers.
And last year the House raised the federal debt ceiling with 193 Democratic votes and only 28 Republican votes.
House Democrats also supplied crucial votes for big budget deals in 2011 and 2014, when 66 and 67 Republicans voted nay. And they provided most of the votes to send federal aid to Superstorm Sandy victims and to renew the Violence Against Women Act.
The bipartisan strategy carries political risks. A House speaker who defies his party’s wishes too often can lose his post.
GOP Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona said Wednesday that Boehner would be “on very thin ice” if he tries to use mainly Democratic votes to pass a Homeland Security funding measure that doesn’t restrict President Barack Obama’s control of immigration policies.
Boehner, who has a knack for navigating the House GOP’s serpentine currents, has survived such threats before. Two-dozen Republicans voted against his re-election as speaker last month, which was more of a slight embarrassment than a genuine scare. His track record doesn’t guarantee a happy end to the Homeland Security debate. But it suggests his options aren’t as limited or dire as some people suggest.
The House voted last month to end Homeland Security funding on Saturday unless Obama reverses his order to protect millions of immigrants from possible deportation. After Democratic filibusters blocked the bill in the Senate, the chamber’s Republican leaders agreed this week to offer a “clean” funding measure, with no immigration strings attached.
If it advances, Boehner will face unsavory choices. They include defunding the Homeland Security Department in an era of terrorist threats, or passing a “clean” funding bill with lots of Democratic votes and GOP defections.
Some Republicans prefer the second option. House Democrats “will give Boehner some votes,” predicted Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who spent eight years in the House. “It gives his 30 or 40 die-hard guys a place to go.”
Graham was alluding to a hard core of ideological conservatives who defy House leaders on many topics. Their numbers range from about 25 to 80, depending on the issue, lawmakers say.
House conservatives sometimes denounce GOP leaders for cutting deals with Democrats. But even their friends say it’s partly political theater.
They talk of an unofficial “hope yes, vote no caucus,” which secretly counts on Democrats to pass important measures, such as debt limit hikes. Die-hard conservatives say they can’t publicly support such bills without inviting primary election challenges from the right.
Republicans hold 245 House seats, to the Democrats’ 188. Two seats are vacant.
Boehner can lose up to 28 Republicans and still pass a bill with no Democratic help. But defections often run much higher on contentious issues, and many Republicans have vowed to do whatever it takes to undo Obama’s deportation orders.
Thirty House conservatives sent a letter to Boehner and other Republican leaders this week urging them to “stand firm against these unlawful executive actions” by Obama.
House Democrats are lying low, happy to watch Republicans struggle. They’ve not publicly promised to help Boehner pass a funding bill, but there’s little doubt they would if Obama approves the final measure.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Wednesday he has spoken with House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and “they’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
For now, House Republicans don’t want to talk about relying on Democrats to resolve the impasse.
“I certainly wouldn’t like that to happen,” said Rep. Bill Flores of Texas. “We are the majority, we have the responsibility to govern.”
Democrats might embrace Republican goals, Flores said, “but they should not be the people that get us over the threshold.”