Are the Democrats in charge of Congress?
On its face, this question certainly seems ridiculous since Republicans regained control of the Senate and increased their majority in the House of Representatives last November.
But as we have witnessed over the last several weeks, just because Republicans have the most seats in the Senate and the House doesn’t mean they are actually in control. Just consider the Department of Homeland Security funding debate.
Last December, both chambers of Congress agreed to a $1.1 trillion dollar spending measure that funded the federal government through the next fiscal year with one caveat: the Department of Homeland Security only received a short-term extension through February 2015. Why? Popularly characterized as the “CRomnibus” deal, this action was promoted as an approach that afforded Congress the ability to address President Obama’s unilateral actions on immigration under the new Republican majorities by how they funded the Department of Homeland Security. Feeding off the momentum from the November elections, Republicans appeared motivated and equipped to tackle the president’s actions during 114th Congress.
“Come January, we’ll have a Republican House and Republican Senate, and we’ll be in a stronger position to take actions. [It is], “the most practical way to fight the president’s action.” –Speaker of the House John Boehner in December.
“If President Obama acts in defiance of the people and imposes his will on the country, Congress will act. We’re considering a variety of options. But make no mistake — make no mistake — when the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act.” –Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.
Or so they thought.
For weeks, many Republicans and conservatives alike bolstered the case for defunding Obama’s immigration actions in the Homeland Security funding bill, stressing that President Obama’s executive actions on immigration were unlawful, challenging the president for originally saying he lacks the authority to suspend deportations through executive order, listing Democrats on record opposing his unilateral moves, and pointing to polls that showed the American people were beginning to gather in their corner.
On the other side, Democrats’ game plan was to simply outlast Republicans, hoping they would fold under self-induced pressure from those within their ranks to do anything to pass Homeland Security funding before the deadline.
It appeared that the tables had finally turned. People were beginning to see the Democrats as “obstructionist” and unwilling to compromise. The Republicans held the higher ground on policy, legality and public opinion.
However, they were missing an important element that Democrats have shown they thrive on: a determination to see their cause through to the end.
Take the Senate Democrats’ refusal to allow consideration on the House Homeland Security bill that would fund all Department functions minus those funds directed to President Obama’s executive action. Even though Senate Democrats could offer amendments and debate the bill, they were willing to delay any action on Homeland Security funding until they received exactly what they wanted—a funding bill that didn’t signal out the president’s action.
Subsequently, Democrats took to the media to turn the tide of the debate. “It’s a staggering failure of leadership that will prolong this manufactured crisis of theirs and endanger the security of the American people,” stated Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi just last week. “With every House Democrat supporting long-term DHS [Department of Homeland Security] funding legislation, it’s clear this crisis exists only because Republicans prioritize anti-immigrant extremism over the safety of the American people.”
Though it has been addressed that 86 percent of the Department will continue to operate without passing a bill, Republicans, afraid of a partial Department of Homeland Security shutdown, began to capitulate.
All that was necessary was for Republicans to finally blink first. After the Democrats filibustered four attempts to advance to the House bill in the Senate, allowing for open debate and the amendment process, Republicans did just that.
With the House passing the Democrat’s “clean” Homeland Security funding bill Tuesday—following in the footsteps of the Senate’s earlier passed measure —it appears that even though Democrats lack the numbers in both chambers, they retain the upper hand. Not only did Democrats receive their version of a clean funding measure that financed President Obama’s executive actions, they gave up nothing in return. No major compromise deal with Republicans was necessary.
If this wasn’t problematic enough, the ripple effects from this may establish a precedent for the rest of the 114th Congress that will prove dangerous for Republicans. From this point forward, can anything stop Democrats from demanding exactly what they want on other issues?
With their success on this issue, Democrats can be encouraged entering into the coming weeks as the debt limit, Sustainable Growth Rate Act (which relates to how much doctors get paid for Medicare patients), and highway bill are all set to expire. In these debates, House and Senate Republicans won’t be able to look towards to courts to fight their battles for them like they are on immigration. For these future debates they will need to hold strong to their principles and the calling of those that put them in office. The decision is simple: Either stand and fight or allow Democrats to continue their control over the 114th Congress.