Congressional Republicans want a graceful way out of a showdown with President Obama over their threat to withhold funding from the Department of Homeland Security in order to block Obama’s executive order protecting nearly five million illegal immigrants from deportation.
The GOP strategy born of conservative outrage over what many saw as Obama’s latest example of executive overreach has been snake bitten from the start last December. That’s when the outgoing Congress approved a temporary extension of the department’s operating budget to give the GOP more time to figure out a feasible strategy.
Shortly after the 114th Congress convened, House Republicans approved new DHS spending authority. It would let DHS do everything but implement the terms of the immigration executive order, despite a presidential veto threat. But their timing could not have been worse.
Terror attacks in France, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere highlighted for many the risk of tampering with the budget of the federal department whose key responsibility is protecting Americans from another 9/11-type terrorist attack. Jeh Johnson, the DHS secretary, has warned lawmakers that the squabble over the executive order could put millions of U.S. lives at risk.
While some say a temporary cutoff of funding to DHS would not interrupt the work of most employees essential to national security, Obama and the Democrats say the political optics of even a partial shutdown would be devastating to the GOP majority in Congress.
In a rousing speech to House Democrats at their Philadelphia retreat Thursday night, Obama slammed Republicans for risking a Homeland Security shutdown over executive actions, saying, “These are the guys concerned about borders, about terrorism? Now you want to make a political point?”
The bill the House approved last month would not only block Obama’s latest policy excusing millions from deportation, but would repeal other significant changes in immigration regulations. Those include instructions to federal immigration officers to focus on deporting criminal illegal immigrants or repeat offenders and Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That measure grants temporary legal status to scores of young people or “dreamers” brought to this country by their illegal immigrant parents.
The controversy will be prominent in the Senate this week, even as lawmakers try to digest Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget plan scheduled for a Monday release.
With a Feb. 27 deadline ahead for the expiration of the DHS’s short-term spending authority, all 46 Senate Democrats and independents have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calling for a “clean” departmental funding bill – shorn of any restrictions on Obama’s executive orders.
The senators said that more short-term spending measures should be set aside because such bills inhibit DHS’s ability to plan for the future and launch new initiatives.
Those concerns were echoed by three former heads of DHS – two Republicans and a Democrat – who said in a letter to McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) that a prolonged fight could risk national security at a time of terrorist threats.
“We do not question your desire to have a larger debate about the nation’s immigration laws,” said the letter signed by Republicans Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff and Democrat Janet Napolitano. “However, we cannot emphasize enough that the DHS’s responsibilities are much broader than its responsibility to oversee the federal immigration agencies and to protect our borders.”
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee overseeing DHS appropriations, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), the senior Democrat on the full committee, introduced a bill last week to permanently fund DHS through the rest of the fiscal year but without immigration policy restrictions.
But many conservatives Republicans on Capitol Hill are digging in and demanding a showdown with the president. “The president is not an imperial master,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) in a floor statement Friday.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) told Politico last week that it would not be the end of the world if there were a partial government shutdown because DHS’s national security functions wouldn’t cease. About 86 percent of DHS employees reported for work during the government shutdown of 2013.
Yet there’s almost no way McConnell could get the 60-vote minimum he’d need to approve DHS funding legislation with constraints on the president’s immigration policies. That means Boehner must find another alternative acceptable to the GOP’s right wing – which won’t be easy. Boehner’s most likely approach is to try to convince members that another lawsuit against Obama would be more effective – and less messy – than a knock-down drag-out spending fight.
Boehner last week said the leadership’s plan is to pursue legal action against the administration to challenge the executive order – much like when House Republicans went to court last year to challenge unilateral presidential changes to the Affordable Care Act.
A Boehner spokesperson insisted the House would press for a rider to the DHS spending bill to achieve the same goal, though it seems increasingly unlikely. A spokesperson for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) called the decision to file suit an “embarrassing admission of failure.”
“Republicans’ radical anti-immigrant legislation is dead on arrival,” said Drew Hammill in a statement. “Once again, House Republicans are crawling to the courts to relieve them of their responsibility to govern.”
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