Republican congressional leaders once again confront their core problem: taming a conservative base unwilling to recognize limits on its popularity and power.
This time, the issue is funding for the federal Department of Homeland Security. Republican lawmakers have withheld it as a pressure tactic in hopes of reversing President Barack Obama's recent immigration order. Since no politician can long tolerate a shutdown of the government agency protecting American soil, conservative firebrands reason, Democrats and Obama will ultimately have to give in.
The problem with this strategy is that, to the contrary, Democrats do not have to give in. Republicans do, and the only question is how much political damage they suffer before that happens.
In this way, the Homeland Security fight resembles earlier confrontations over spending cuts in 2011 and Obamacare in 2013. In the former, conservatives blocked an increase in the federal debt limit, which led to the first-ever downgrade of America's credit rating. In the latter, they refused to fund the government, triggering a shutdown.
Two common threads link all three confrontations.
First is the quest to impose an outcome that conservatives lack the constitutional clout to impose. The first two times, Democrats controlled the Senate and the White House.
Now they have only the White House, but that's enough for Obama to prevail on immigration using his veto pen. One additional Democratic advantage: fear among Republican political strategists of further alienating the fast-growing Hispanic constituency in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Second is the use of an unsustainable tactic to achieve those outcomes. Americans want their security agency to remain on the job, just as they want sound and stable credit markets and a functioning federal government. As the party explicitly making those basic functions hostage to other objectives, Republicans rather than Democrats suffer the political blame if they're impeded.