A lot of House Republicans are heading out of Washington as their lame duck session drags on — and their absences from Congress could be a big barrier to President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
Republicans lost 40 seats and control of the House in last month’s election, the party’s worst battering since the Watergate scandal-inspired election of 1974. Democrats will take control of the chamber Jan. 3, making these final weeks of the 2018 session Republicans’ last best chance for at least two years to provide big money for the wall.
Yet 23 Republicans were absent Thursday morning when the House met for votes on unrelated legislation— including Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, California Rep. Jeff Denham, Missouri Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Ann Wagner and Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins. Hartzler was absent because her father died.
Nine Republicans were absent the previous day when the House passed the farm bill.
Curbelo, who lost his re-election bid in the face of anti-Trump backlash, said on Twitter Wednesday that he won’t vote for any legislation that provides significant funding for new barriers along the border if it is not paired with provisions to protect young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That sort of deal is unlikely this year.
Curbelo missed votes Thursday because of a family commitment. He voted Wednesday for the farm bill.
DACA allows immigrants who are brought to the country illegally as children to obtain work permits. Trump has sought to end the program, which was established under President Barack Obama.
Denham, who also lost his re-election campaign, has also said that he would be reluctant to vote for a border wall without DACA protections.
The House Homeland Security budget bill, which includes $5 billion for the wall, would protect the program for one year. Many lawmakers want a longer-term fix.
Trump has threatened to shut down part of the government if Congress does not pass a Homeland Security budget bill steer $5 billion toward the construction of a border wall. Nine Cabinet agencies and several smaller department will run out of money at 12:01 a.m. Dec. 22 unless a budget is signed into law.
Republican leaders in the House had weighed bringing the bill with $5 billion to the floor this week, but scrapped that idea after dozens of lawmakers left Washington following the passage of the farm bill Wednesday night, according to a senior GOP aide.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, noted Hartzler’s family situation when asked whether absences were affecting House Republicans’ ability to pass the legislation.
Hartzler’s father, Teddy Joe Zellmer, passed away at the age of 83 Monday in his home in Harrisonville, Missouri. The funeral will take place Saturday.
“There are a number of members that were out for deaths,” Scalise said. “Vicky Hartzler’s father passed away, there were some other illnesses — I’ve been in touch with the members that haven’t been able to make it here for various reasons. But we’re keeping a close tab on who all is going to be here next week.”
Republicans can’t afford to lose more than 19 votes on legislation, since it takes 218 to pass most bills and the GOP has 236 seats. And it’s hardly a certainty that all Republicans would vote for the $5 billion.
“We’d like to lose zero, but clearly there are some members on our side that aren’t there, but the vast majority are,” Scalise said. “It’s unfortunate that there aren’t any Democrats who are willing to say they’ll vote for border security in this country.”
Jenkins, a Topeka Republican who is retiring at the end of the term, may end up missing additional votes next week as well because she’s getting married this month, her office said Thursday.
Jenkins’ spokesman Lee Modesitt noted in an email that Congress originally planned to adjourn by December 13, but the schedule was pushed back after the death of former President George H.W. Bush.
“While next week’s votes are still in flux, given her wedding plans were made months ago based with the expectation that Congress would adjourn on the 13th, it is possible the Congresswoman will not be present for votes at the end of next week,” Modesitt said.
Jenkins has already established a lobbying and political consulting business for her post-congressional career.
Wagner missed Thursday’s vote on a measure calling for the Burmese government to release two imprisoned journalists, which passed with a large bipartisan majority, to attend a groundbreaking of the National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency’s facility in St. Louis.
She was heavily involved in getting the facility built in St. Louis and had planned for weeks to attend the groundbreaking. If a wall vote had taken place Thursday, Wagner would have changed her plans.
Even if the House takes a symbolic vote in favor of the $5 billion for a border wall, the package would have a difficult time passing the Senate.
Democrats, who can block legislation in the Senate, have taken firm position in support of a more moderate $1.6 billion for additional border security in a Homeland Security budget bill crafted by the Senate. It takes 60 votes to limit debate in the Senate, and since Republicans control 51 seats, getting to 60 is probably impossible..
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, who was supposed to be the House’s lead negotiator on the bill, was pessimistic about the wall’s prospects, saying in an interview this week that if Trump does not agree to a compromise between the two figures Republicans will have even less leverage because it will “kick this into the beginning of Nancy Pelosi’s speakership.”
Yoder opined that his 5-year-old daughter would be able to pick a number between the two figures.