In an exclusive interview with Breitbart Texas, Congressman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) pushed back against critics who view Congressional Republican leadership as weak on amnesty, and defended the planned homeland security appropriations bill that will come up for a vote in the new Congress as a strong tactic against President Obama’s unconstitutional executive amnesty orders.
Sessions spoke to Breitbart Texas for nearly an hour, and also shared four letters he wrote to constituents about the legislation earlier this month. He was clearly aware of the criticism leveled against him but was also adamant that the appropriations bill was not pro-amnesty and that it would effectively thwart Obama’s efforts to enact amnesty by executive order. Sessions also did not deny previous comments he has made that drew attacks as being pro-amnesty, but argued that the comments were taken out of context and that the focus right now needed to be on finding a way to pass the appropriations bill.
Chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, Sessions holds significant sway over legislation and has become a target for conservative activists who are frustrated with the Republican leadership under Speaker John Boehner. Sessions did not criticize Boehner directly during our interview, but they have butted heads on at least one key occasion during the past few years, regarding Sessions’ leadership of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
Sessions had taken over as NRCC Chairman during a rough period for the GOP – the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress – and he had a very ambitious goal: regain Republican control of the House and retire Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. At a Spring 2009 fundraiser, Sessions told the crowd that his goal was to “retire Nancy Pelosi” while an annoyed Boehner watched. In an interview with POLITICO, Sessions said that Boehner reacted to his remarks by saying “don’t say that sh**,” not wanting him to make a promise Boehner was not certain they would be able to convince the voters to fulfill.
In the end, Sessions got his way, the NRCC worked to target vulnerable Democrats in right-leaning districts, and the RNC headquarters displayed a “FIRE PELOSI” banner, a slogan quickly adopted by grassroots activists who successfully helped defeat enough House Democrats in the 2010 elections to return the chamber to Republican control.
Regarding the controversial CRomnibus bill, Sessions acknowledged that it was “far from perfect” in one of his constituent letters, but also pointed out what he viewed as several positive aspects of the legislation. “[T]his legislation locks in many important policy provisions that Republicans have vetted and worked hard to get codified into law for years despite Democrat opposition,” wrote Sessions. “The inclusion of these Republican priorities is a reflection of the leverage Republicans are beginning to gain as a result of the midterm elections.”
In his interview with Breitbart Texas, Sessions highlighted two spending cuts that he claimed as conservative victories: slashing funding for the IRS by $365 million and the EPA by $60 million. According to Sessions, $1.2 billion has been cut from the IRS budget since Fiscal Year 2010. “This is important because of what they did to conservative groups,” said Sessions, referring to the targeting of tea party and conservative organizations for harassment. The EPA cuts were accompanied by a policy rider prohibiting the agency from regulating the amount of lead in bullets and casings, which Sessions said “amounted to a Second Amendment infringement.”
The end result of the CRomnibus bill was to fund the government at the 2008 spending levels for eleven of the twelve discretionary spending matters that are handled with appropriations bills through the end of September 2015, and to temporarily fund the twelfth, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under a continuing resolution through the end of February. Funding DHS through September is the subject of the appropriations bill that Sessions is negotiating.
The CRomnibus bill was passed under threat of a possible government shutdown if the Republicans and Democrats did not reach an agreement, and the upcoming DHS bill is in a similar situation. A critical aspect to understanding the strategy behind these bills, Sessions told Breitbart Texas, is understanding how the government functions during a shutdown.
While the CRomnibus bill was being negotiated, Congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-South Carolina) approached Sessions to discuss adding an amendment that would block funding for Obama’s executive actions on immigration, by targeting the fee-based services under the visa program that Obama was planning to use for his amnesty program. Sessions pointed out a very important aspect of fee-based programs: because they are self-funding, operating from the revenues generated by fees imposed and collected by that same agency, they are not affected by a government shutdown.
DHS itself is in a unique position during a government shutdown. Ninety-five percent of DHS employees are designated “essential” and are still required to come to work during a shutdown, but they are not able to get paid for that work unless and until Congress votes to grant them that back pay. “Non-essential” workers are also not paid during a shutdown, but they are not required to come to work. The employees who work under fee-based programs, however, continue to both work and earn a paycheck during a government shutdown, unless the president orders them to stop working.
The problem, according to Sessions, with attaching Mulvaney’s amendment to the CRomnibus bill was that there was no agreement with the Senate, which was still controlled by the Democrats. Sessions said that he had told Mulvaney that he liked his amendment, but worried that it would be used by the Senate Democrats as a weapon, to derail the negotiations and potentially lead to a government shutdown, which would likely be blamed on the Republicans.
Still, the failure to include Mulvaney’s language in the CRomnibus bill drew criticism from conservative activists, with some saying that this was proof that Boehner, Sessions, and the rest of the House GOP leadership were not committed to fighting Obama’s amnesty. Not so, said Sessions, who was insistent that neither the Senate Democrats nor the President would accept the Mulvaney amendment at this point, and so there was zero chance it would pass. Moreover, he said, if the Republicans had dug in their heels and the government had shut down, it would not have stopped Obama from continuing to draw on the fee-based visa program to implement his amnesty program.
“We knew back in December, even if the government was shut down, this would not stop the fee-based program,” said Sessions. “This is where we got twisted. I knew it would not stop, but these guys wanted to fight anyway.”
Sessions told Mulvaney that there would be an opportunity to address the issue during the DHS appropriations bill discussions. The current plan, said Sessions, is that when the new Congress meets in January, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky) will come to the Rules Committee, and they will present a bill that will fund DHS at the 2008 spending levels through September 30, except the president will not be allowed to use a fee-based program to create a change in the law that was not already passed by Congress.
“I disagree with what the President did,” Sessions told Breitbart Texas. “You cannot spend money to do any activity that has not been previously expressly provided for in the laws of the United States of America.”
“I’m not trying to pick a fight with Mick Mulvaney,” Sessions continued. “I told Mick, we like your language, I agree with the concept.” Sessions’ concern about using Mulvaney’s exact language was that it might still leave some loopholes for Obama. “We didn’t say amnesty or exactly what he was going to do,” said Sessions, because Obama would then just issue new executive orders or draw on a different fee-based program to implement them.
Sessions described his language as functioning “very similar” to Mulvaney’s amendment, and said that they had the same goal: to stop the “unconstitutional and unlawful act by the President to unilaterally change the law or add to the law, to make law, by himself as chief executive.”
“This means the President will have a bill that fully funds all of homeland security,” said Sessions, “and a rider that says you cannot authorize any work under DHS that is not already specified by law, which means that he will be the one to shut down the government, not us.”
Sessions felt very strongly that waiting to address this issue until Republicans had control over both the House and the Senate put them in a much stronger negotiating position. “This is how you win,” he continued, “The other people out there who simply want to fight and paint Pete Sessions as ‘he’s for amnesty, he’s a Boehner guy,’ that’s not true. We’re looking to win.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do,” said Sessions. “I’m trying to be smart, I’m trying to be savvy, and I’m trying to win the issue…beating Barack Obama at his own game.”
The fact that the “essential” workers who are forced to work during a government shutdown cannot get paid for their work unless Congress authorizes it was the “key” in forcing the President’s hand, according to Sessions. “The President may shutdown the government – he won’t do it, I guarantee we’re gonna win – but the President, if he wants to, can shut down the government, which means that Homeland Security only would not be getting paid, but 95% would have to report to work,” and then Obama would be coming to Congress begging them to enact his amnesty program and to pay the DHS employees, but “there’s nothing that says that the House or the Senate is going to agree to open back up or to pay these people. It will be the president’s problem.”
After the new Congress officially begins on January 5th, Sessions promised that he would have his bill out “within a week,” and he was absolutely confident that his version of the DHS appropriations bill would pass both the House and Senate will little trouble. “It will pass [the House],” he vowed, “[And] why would the Senate vote against it?”
Sessions also expressly denied that there was any intention of stripping out the language blocking funding for Obama’s executive amnesty and sending it forward as a stand-alone bill, or “show vote.” Instead he characterized those provisions as absolutely critical to their strategy to “smartly isolate the President,” to “strategically and tactically defeat” him so that he cannot move forward with amnesty.
To clarify the legal issues in this bill, Sessions has asked the Congressional Research Service to confirm that, yes, employees working for fee-based agencies would continue to be paid during a government shutdown, the only people getting paid during this time. Sessions said that it would be “hard for the President to defend” these workers getting paid while others were not. Furthermore, Obama still has an Attorney General nominee, Loretta Lynch, that he wants to get through the Senate. Breitbart Texas asked Sessions if he thought that the Senate would question Lynch on the issue of fee-based workers being paid during a shutdown and either force her to state support for the plan on the record, or if she disagreed, provide the Senate an easy excuse to reject her. Sessions agreed that this would give the Senate “leverage moving ahead” and put them in a position of strength negotiating this nomination.
Sessions also sought to clarify some controversial comments he made at a Rules Committee hearing at the beginning of December, that he was “going to use my assets and resources in the new year to work with this Congress… to have a well-understood agreement about what the law should be, and how we as communities, and farm communities, and tech communities, create circumstances where we can have people be in this country and work, and where not one person is quote ‘thrown out’ or ‘deported.'”
According to Sessions, this quote was a response to Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), who testified at about four hours into what would eventually be a nearly six hour hearing. Gutierrez’s comments were mostly attacks on Republicans, and the video of the hearing shows him accusing Republicans of supporting a bill that will lead to “every single undocumented immigrant [being] deported,” that “the United States could, would, and should deport 11 million people.” Gutierrez also accused Republicans of seeking to “round up” and deport the nearly 5 million children of illegal immigrants who were U.S. citizens. Sessions claims that he was attempting to clarify that the Republicans did not realistically believe they could deport millions of people, and that the bills being considered would not attempt to do that, but would expect that the rule of law be followed and the hearing and deportation procedures established in the immigration courts be enforced.
Sessions denied that his comments were any indication that the Republican leadership were considering some sort of amnesty plan. “If you actually watch the video, you see where I’m trying to defend our party, not trying to give a secret plan [from Boehner],” he told Breitbart Texas.
The entire Rules Committee Hearing video can be viewed here (Gutierrez’s comments begin around the 3:50:14 mark):
Excerpt containing Sessions’ comments about not having people “thrown out or deported”:
Sessions previously drew the ire of conservatives during his reelection campaign this year, after he told the Dallas Morning News editorial board that he supported a guest worker program that would allow illegal workers to keep their jobs and pay taxes but not obtain citizenship. Videos also surfaced of him making similar comments at town hall events, as Breitbart Texas reported.
Sessions denied that he was “pro-amnesty” and again reiterated his commitment to get the DHS appropriations bill through the Rules Committee with the language blocking the funding of Obama’s executive amnesty.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.
[Disclosure: Sarah Rumpf previously worked on an event for the NRCC. She helped plan a grassroots event in Orlando, Florida while Pete Sessions was NRCC Chairman.]