Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Funding Fight Over Homeland Security Poses Dangers for the G.O.P.
New York Times
FEB. 23, 2015

WASHINGTON — After promising an era of responsible governing and an end to federal shutdowns, congressional Republicans find themselves mired in an immigration fight that could cause funding for the Department of Homeland Security to run out on Friday.

It is a risky moment for the new congressional majority. A nasty partisan impasse over funding for a vital agency would probably damage the party’s brand just months after Republicans took power, and the impact could carry over into the next election cycle.

“I don’t think shutdowns and showdowns are the way to win the presidency in 2016,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and a respected party strategist.

He and many other lawmakers believe a last-minute resolution is possible, particularly given new terrorism threats, including one against the Mall of America in Minnesota. And Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, took the first steps toward trying to break the impasse on Monday night by proposing a measure that would allow the Senate to register its disapproval by blocking the president’s 2014 actions on immigration in one bill, while approving the security money in another.

“It’s another way to get the Senate unstuck,” Mr. McConnell said. He acted after Senate Democrats for a fourth time blocked Republicans in their efforts to force debate on a $40 billion Homeland Security measure that would gut President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The vote was 47 to 46, well short of the 60 needed.

The prospect of an agency shutdown was seen as almost laughable until recently, most notably because Republicans are typically predisposed to fund security matters. But now the chances are increasingly serious. If the agency is shut down, roughly 30,000 of its 230,000 employees will be furloughed. The rest, deemed essential, would be expected to continue working, but without receiving their regular biweekly paychecks.

Transportation Security Administration officers at airports, Border Patrol agents, frontline law enforcement officials and members of the Coast Guard would be required to report to work. But many administrative and front office staff members would be sent home, creating concerns about the day-to-day operations of the department.

At the T.S.A., which screens 1.8 million passengers daily, roughly 5,500 — or about 10 percent — of its employees would be furloughed, forcing some of the security screeners and officials in the field to be diverted to help with those administrative tasks. Law enforcement officers serving in the Federal Air Marshal Service, however, would be exempt.

One potential way out of the stalemate — a decision last week by a federal judge in Texas to block the president’s executive actions clearing the way for millions of illegal immigrants to obtain work permits — did not change many minds on Capitol Hill about how to proceed, though it may eventually be crucial to a resolution.

Some Democrats and Republicans argued that with the immigration policy stymied in the courts, Congress could move ahead with the funding bill and let the third branch of government referee the dispute between the White House and Capitol Hill.

Instead, the court action emboldened some congressional Republicans who said that since the president’s action was blocked, Democrats should go ahead and drop their filibuster of the spending bill.

“Senate Dems filibustering DHS funding over executive amnesty that was halted by federal judge is senseless,” Representative Tom Price, the Georgia Republican who chairs the Budget Committee, said in a Twitter post.

By Monday evening, however, at least a handful of more moderate Republicans had begun suggesting that the court’s ruling might allow them to pass a clean spending bill.

“I’ve always thought the judicial system was an alternative way to deal with the president’s overreach last November, and now that one court has ruled to put a stay on his executive order, perhaps that frees us to go forward and get the department fully funded,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.

Unlike the provisions the House sent over to halt Mr. Obama’s executive actions, Mr. McConnell’s proposal does not seek to undo the legal protections provided to the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers — something even some Republicans said they thought was too harsh.

As the administration on Monday requested a stay of the Texas ruling, Mr. Obama told a gathering of the nation’s governors that a shutdown would hurt the rebounding economy. “We can’t afford to play politics with our national security,” he said.

Many Republicans acknowledge that they will get most of the blame, just as they did in October 2013 — and, for that matter, in 1995 during the shutdown in the Clinton administration.

House members return Tuesday, leaving only three days to find a solution. Top House Republicans insist that it is up to the Senate to find a way out. But Mr. McConnell is in a procedural box where it is difficult for him to move either forward or backward, and his proposal on Monday was an effort to gain some maneuvering room.

The current thinking is that the funding deadline needs to be imminent before House Republicans can relent and consider a bill that strips out the immigration provisions for a later fight. Or a short-term bill, which was emerging as a distinct possibility, may be the answer. But as in the past, events can slip out of the leadership’s control and end up with no settlement and furlough notices going to thousands of agency employees while many others in jobs deemed critical will have to work without pay and only the expectation that they will ultimately get a check.

Some conservatives say they are willing to allow the Homeland Security funding to lapse since most employees would have to report to work anyway.

Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, said, “It’s not clear what the impact is because there are a lot of things that are supposedly funded anyway, so the impact may be smaller than we think.”

Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, said in an interview that it was “indulging in a fantasy to believe you can shut down the Department of Homeland Security and there be no impact to homeland security itself.”

“This is not the time to be shutting down the Department of Homeland Security by failure to act,” Mr. Johnson added. He cited new challenges from global terrorism, cybersecurity threats, an exceptionally harsh winter in the Northeast and the South, and the possibility of another spike in illegal immigration on the Southwest border.

The funding fight has stifled momentum that Republicans carried into the new Congress. They posted a few quick victories, including approval of a lapsed terrorism insurance program and a veterans suicide prevention measure that had been blocked in December. They also pushed through a measure to expedite construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and allowed a robust fight on the floor in line with Mr. McConnell’s pledge to restore “regular order” in the Senate.

But the funding fight has tied the Senate in knots for weeks, preventing Republicans from moving ahead on other legislation they had hoped to advance.

As they brace for a possible shutdown, leading Republicans say their colleagues need to embrace the reality that their new congressional majorities simply do not give them the power to force through provisions that Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats are dead set against.

“People demanding what can’t be done are making a political mistake,” Mr. Cole said.

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