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Things are getting weird in the House.

Despite a GOP Senate that is waving the white flag, Speaker John A. Boehner isn’t ready to admit defeat on the Department of Homeland Security funding bill — at least not yet.

Facing the prospect of a conservative mutiny, Boehner is showing hardly any signs that he’s given up on the fight to block President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. But he also seems to be stuck between knowing how this fight plays out and knowing he can’t skip to the end.

Boehner was asked Thursday during his weekly news conference if a final DHS bill needed to have immigration provisions. That’s not a question the Ohio Republican is ready to answer, however.

“The House passed a bill six weeks ago,” he said, providing a line he would return to three more times before the press conference had ended. “It’s time for the Senate to do their work.”

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Boehner reasoned that he doesn’t know what the Senate can produce. “If they produce something, we’ll decide after we see it,” he said.

But Boehner does know what the Senate will produce. And when pressed that Senate Republicans and Democrats have agreed to a clean bill and are in the process of winding down the legislative clock to send that legislation to the House, Boehner wouldn’t budge.

“When I see what the Senate actually passes, then I’ll know,” he said defiantly.

Eventually, a correspondent for Public Radio International, Todd Zwillich, sufficiently cornered Boehner, confronting the speaker with the assertion that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said “exactly” what he’s going to do. “You know exactly what you’re going to do,” Zwillich said. “It’s going to be a clean DHS funding bill.”

He then asked Boehner what he was going to do with that bill. Would he put it on the floor? Would he kill it? Would he amend it?

Boehner, seemingly unable to escape the question and answer that the House had already acted, went for theater of the absurd. He smooched the air. Repeatedly. Somehow, this was supposed to answer the question. In some way, maybe it did.

It was almost as if Boehner was saying, “You’re not going to get me to answer, but nice try.”

Sensing the air kisses hadn’t satisfactorily answered the question, Boehner continued down his diversionary path. “It’s just a kiss,” he said.

“Several,” Zwillich responded.

Perhaps the most insightful question came when Politico’s Jake Sherman had the good sense to give Boehner the opportunity to preview his eventual explanation for caving. Sherman asked if the Texas court injunction already preventing the executive action from taking place was enough?

“The courts have stopped the president’s executive action,” Boehner said, “at least temporarily.”

But he continued his insistence that lawmakers needed to weigh in on the immigration action. “Having said that,” he said, “I think there’s a role for Congress to play in defending the Constitution and upholding the rule of law — and we intend to do that.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a role in the DHS bill. Boehner seems to be leaving the door open to take the out that Senate Republicans took: a vote on a separate bill to stop the president. Such a measure won’t get signed into law — it’s not attached to anything that’s must-pass — but it will be a message to the president and to voters that Congress disagrees with Obama’s decision.

The House has already functionally taken that vote. They attached language to the DHS bill, 237-190. But a separate bill, one that GOP leaders can reference as a reason why they don’t need attach a similar amendment to another bill, seems to be the next logical step.

Of course, even if they pass separate legislation, this fight won’t go away. There are more bills to be passed. The debt ceiling will likely need to be raised right around the time that government funding is set to run out, just when another round of sequestration is set to kick in. And sooner or later, facing an obstinate Democratic opposition who seems quite alright with letting Republicans shut down parts of the government, Boehner will have to give his conference and reporters more than kissing sounds.

Before Boehner held his press conference, the top Democratic leaders in the House and Senate held a rare joint news conference to present unified opposition to any kind of stopgap DHS spending bill or a House-Senate conference committee.

“Here in the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, “we will vote on fully funding Homeland Security. We’re not going to allow a conference to take place. If they want to debate immigration when this is all over, we’re happy to do that.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she had spoken briefly with Boehner about the prospect of Democratic votes for the full spending. But she signaled Democrats wouldn’t support a short-term CR.

“Stop the games-playing, let’s just get serious,” she said. “We’re only talking now … about eight months.”

Boehner’s bind is real. He has to somehow manage a contingent in his conference that wants to govern with those who feel they have an obligation to have this fight over the president’s executive action — even if that means a departmental shutdown. The division is real, and it’s difficult to unite both sides.

Asked Thursday if he thought his speakership was being challenged, Boehner was dismissive and emphatic.

“No! Heaven’s sake, no,” he said. “Not at all.”

But maybe he should reserve judgment on that too.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.


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