Immigration, Landrieu gambit on Keystone pipeline top first day of Congress' lame duck session
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans controlling the House are divided over whether to fund the government for a couple of months past a December deadline to maintain leverage over President Barack Obama on immigration or to pass a full-year spending bill to clear the decks for a fresh start when the GOP gets full control of Congress in January.
More pragmatic lawmakers like those who lead the Appropriations Committee are pressing hard for a so-called omnibus spending bill and warn that tea party forces who want to drag must-pass spending bills into their battle with Obama over his planned executive action on immigration could spark a government shutdown next month or next year.
But many conservatives do not want to cede any power to Obama and Senate Democrats who will relinquish control of Congress next year. These conservatives are promising to pull out all the stops - including withholding funding to implement any immigration order - to block Obama.
"Very few people want to do a long-term (spending bill) and give up all the power that we just achieved in the election," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.
But more seasoned lawmakers warn that putting veto bait like an immigration provision into a spending bill would put Republicans on the path toward a government shutdown just as an effort last year to "defund" the new health care law backfired into a 16-day shutdown. Perceptions of Washington gridlock left large numbers of voters in a bad mood this election season.
"Our goal here is to stop the president from violating his own oath of office and violating the Constitution," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "It's not to shut down the government."
"There's no one more strong than me against unilateral action by the president on this subject. However, like it's been said before, don't take a hostage you can't shoot," said Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky. "I don't want a shutdown and I don't want the threat of a shutdown. Because that doesn't serve our purposes."
Meanwhile, House Republicans moved toward a vote this week on long-stalled legislation to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline as a political gambit by endangered Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of GOP-dominated Louisiana appeared on its way to fruition.
Landrieu is an underdog to win a fourth term in a runoff next month with GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. She's a supporter of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline but was unable to win a vote on it, which has been a flash point in her race. Cassidy's version recently passed the House and GOP leaders immediately scheduled another vote on it for Friday.
The Keystone XL issue was an unexpected addition to a lame-duck agenda focused on keeping the government running past a Dec. 11 deadline.
Preventing a government shutdown is a top priority of GOP leaders like Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell said the other big items for the lame-duck Congress are renewing expired tax breaks for businesses and individuals, more money to fight Ebola and renewing Obama's authority to arm and train opposition to Islamic State militants in Syria, which expires next month.
Republicans and several moderate Democrats insist that construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline would create tens of thousands of jobs. Environmentalists maintain that the project would have a negative impact and contribute to climate change.
Keystone XL supporters say Senate action is needed to end years of delay by the administration on whether to approve the project.
Senate passage of the bill as early as next Tuesday would force Obama to either sign it into law or veto the measure just weeks after a Democratic drubbing in midterm elections.
While the White House stopped short of directly threatening a veto, spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama takes a "dim view" of legislative efforts to force action on the project. Earnest reiterated Obama's preference for evaluating the pipeline through a long-stalled State Department review.
In the Senate, conservatives such as Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, are among those arguing to use an upcoming must-pass spending bill - either in December or next year - to try to block Obama from taking unilateral action to protect millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally from deportation. At the very least they want to pass a short-term funding bill that punts major decisions on spending and other policies into next year when Republicans control the Senate.
But Republicans in the Senate are split as well.
"We could clearly pass a budget out of both chambers that doesn't fund it, the president would probably veto it or threaten to, and then you find yourself in kind of the situation we were in not long ago," said Sen. Marco Rubio. "So that's what everyone's trying to work through, to see if there's a way to address it that's not counterproductive."