WASHINGTON – John Boehner looked as if he were a spectator at his own hanging – and in a sense he is.
He can defy conservatives by abandoning their fight to undo President Obama’s immigration actions and perhaps lose his speakership in the process. Or he can stand with the conservatives and be blamed for shutting down the Department of Homeland Security.
So the House speaker is leading from behind. Waiting for his turn to speak at a news conference following a House GOP caucus meeting Wednesday morning, he was a bundle of nerves: He stroked the hem of his jacket, rubbed his fingertips together, licked his lips, pinched his nose and allowed his famously moist eyes to well with tears just before approaching the microphone.
CNN’s Dana Bash asked Boehner whether he is concerned that, if he passes a Homeland Security bill without the immigration provisions, “it will be the end of your speakership.”
“I’m waiting for the Senate to act,” Boehner replied.
Bash persisted: But was he concerned about a rebellion in his own ranks?
“I’m waiting for the Senate to pass a bill.”
NBC’s Luke Russert asked him why he hadn’t spoken with his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in two weeks.
Boehner reiterated his position that “we’re waiting for the Senate to act.”
Politico’s Jake Sherman asked what he thought about the merits of McConnell’s plan to split the immigration issue from the funding of DHS.
“I’m waiting for the Senate to pass a bill,” Boehner repeated.
Will Congress avoid a government shutdown?
“I’m waiting for the Senate to act.”
Boehner began to walk away. “Do you think the Senate should act?” Bash teased.
The speaker gave a brave smile.
Of course, everybody knows what the Senate is going to do: Democrats, after blocking passage of a bill that made DHS funding contingent on undoing Obama’s immigration policy, are supporting McConnell’s plan to decouple the two. The only question is what Boehner will do – and conservatives are sharpening their knives.
“I am not going to vote to fund unconstitutional conduct,” Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said as he left the caucus meeting in the Capitol basement. “Illegal aliens are undermining national security,” he added, accusing McConnell of “a breach of oath of office and our fealty to the United States Constitution.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a leader of a conservative House faction, said the bill linking immigration to DHS funding remained the House Republican position, and Rep. John Fleming, R-La., declared that “we don’t plan to do anything” to change it.
Furthermore, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., announced he had spoken with two TSA agents about a shutdown, “and they both said: ‘Stay strong. We’ll be all right.’”
This left House higher-ups unnerved. “We’re going to move this,” Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, part of the leadership, declared as he left the meeting. Move what? “Uh, what, I think what John talked about. He’s going to get together with people. … I think we’re going to work through the problems. And, um, I’m really not prepared to say.”
Reporters surrounded Sessions and camera lights went on. “This is not what I wanted at this point,” Sessions muttered. “I’m just walking to my office, guys,” he said. “John will cover that. Is that fair? It is to me.”
But “John” didn’t do that. He and his leadership team went to the microphones to talk about – education. None of the six lawmakers at the GOP news conference mentioned the Homeland Security standoff in their opening statements.
“When I had 4-H animals and I sold them, I saved that money so I could go to school,” disclosed Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
Said verbally challenged Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.: “I have two small kids that are now one in college and one about to go to college.”
Reporters, however, did not care how small McCarthy’s college-age kids are. They wanted to know what Boehner was going to do about immigration – and Boehner was playing for time. “Until the Senate does something, we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” he said for the umpteenth time – and he acknowledged that during this waiting and seeing, he hadn’t spoken with McConnell. “Listen, Senator McConnell’s got a big job to do. So do I.”
Yes, and with a DHS shutdown looming Friday night, he can’t avoid doing it much longer.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.