Republicans run down Obama's clock

Speaker John Boehner
Speaker John Boehner

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Speaker John Boehner 00:15

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: GOP hogs the spotlight with funding deadlines like the battle over money for the Department of Homeland Security.
  • He says the continual crises deprive Obama of the chance to move his agenda forward even slightly

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of the new book "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It looks like the Republicans in Congress have failed again. House Republicans defeated a plan pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to fund the Department of Homeland Security, money that congressional Republicans have been holding hostage in their effort to overturn President Obama's executive order on immigration.

McConnell proposed that there would be a separate vote on the immigration issue. When Speaker John Boehner proposed an even narrower compromise, funding the Department for only three more weeks, his caucus said no. The final bill provides funding for one more week, at which point Congress needs to take up the issue again.
Julian E. Zelizer-Profile-Image
Yet from a different perspective, congressional Republicans are achieving their goal. Once again they are using up a valuable chunk of President Obama's political time. Congress has already squandered several months rather than addressing bigger questions, such as economic inequality or climate change, which the White House hoped to put at the center of political debate even if the Republicans refused to do anything about these problems.
    While the odds of the president making progress on key issues is extremely slim, President Obama has not even had a chance to introduce issues fully into public debate -- a key function of presidents who hope to build the groundwork for future legislative breakthroughs and shape the national conversation -- or to even to attempt to make progress on issues, like tax reform, where there is potential support for a bipartisan breakthrough.
    Using up the legislative clock has been central to the Republican strategy since the 2010 midterm elections, a tactic that the Democrats have found difficult to fight back against.
    The strategy has been pretty straightforward. Each time that President Obama tried to introduce a new issue to the nation, whether that has to do with immigration reform or economic inequality, Republicans have instantly shifted public attention elsewhere by threatening extreme action on some other area of policy.
    This is what Republicans did in 2010 and 2011 when they warned that they would not raise the debt limit ceiling if Democrats did not accede to their budget demands. Congress spent many months wrangling over the budget as they faced the real possibility of the federal government going into default. This was all that anyone in Washington was talking about. The GOP did the same with the threat of a government shutdown.
    Even though the possibility of repealing the Affordable Care Act is remote, Republicans keep bringing it up for a debate, forcing Democrats to defend the program and spending more time on a proposal that nobody really thinks stands a chance of passing.
    The "tea party" faction of the House Republicans has been pivotal to this strategy as was clear this week. Since they have shown repeatedly that they are willing to employ the most extreme measures to defend their principles, and that they won't allow Boehner to rein them in for "practical" political considerations, Democrats can't afford to take the threats lightly.
    Republican leaders can and have said to the White House they would like to find reasonable solutions to these problems, but with a nod to the Republican caucus, remind Obama that they don't have full control.
    While it is true that these tactics have hurt the name brand of the GOP and place Republican presidential candidates at greater risk in 2016, many congressional Republicans have been willing to suffer hits in the polls because the tactic has allowed them to continue using up time on the legislative calendar. Aside from vetoing bills, President Obama doesn't have many options other than to watch the clock tick away.
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    Now the GOP has done it again. Even if there is a resolution that continues funding for the Department of Homeland Security, months have been consumed on Capitol Hill. When the year began President Obama wanted to make economic inequality a defining theme for the year. He wanted to use the limited power he had to bring more attention to the growing divide between the rich and the poor, as well as the struggles facing middle class Americans. But he has only had limited success. Instead, he and his party have been consumed with this struggle over the budget bill.
    When House Republicans pushed their "stop-gap" measure to fund Homeland Security for just another week, they were following the standard game plan. By avoiding permanent solutions to budgeting problems, and keeping the debate over these issues in play for even more time, the GOP continues to eat away at the president's political clock.
    Usually political extremism does not have the virtues that Sen. Barry Goldwater claimed in his famous 1964 speech to the Republican Convention, but it sure can have short-term political benefits in Congress. Just ask Mitch McConnell, who can barely contain his grin.