WASHINGTON – It could be up to the U.S. House to save the Department of Homeland Security from a partial shutdown, after the Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a motion to proceed to a funding bill, breaking a two-month political stalemate.
The Senate united to approve the bill, 98-2, after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stripped House provisions aimed at blocking President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The only votes against the bill were cast by Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Congress has less than two days to approve a final funding bill for the department which has been trapped in a political battle over the president’s executive action on immigration. If funding lapses, more than three-quarters of the agency’s employees would have to work without pay and another 30,000 would be furloughed.
With the funding fight ongoing, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his department is bracing for a partial shutdown.
“We’ve gone through the list of who can be furloughed and who has to come to work and we’ve begun informing people about that on an informal basis,” Johnson told reporters.
McConnell struck the compromise after the House approved a bill that linked Homeland Security funding with immigration. Earlier this week, the House approach was blocked by Senate Democrats for a fourth time.
In exchange for the “clean” Homeland Security bill, McConnell will appease hardline Republicans by introducing a separate bill to freeze Obama’s plan to allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to stay and work here.
On Wednesday, Johnson warned of “concrete, dramatic consequences” if the department’s temporary budget expires midnight on Friday – during a time of heightened terrorist threats, including one made over the weekend to target American shopping malls.
All eyes are turned to the House, where the rewritten bill will be sent for final agreement if the Senate passes the “clean” funding bill Friday. But uncertainty looms.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is in a bind – the onus is on him to lead his conference to fund Homeland Security, but he risks opposition from conservatives if he supports a bill that does not attack the president’s immigration plans.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, Boehner said that he was simply “waiting for the Senate to do their job.”
He said he had not spoken to McConnell directly in two weeks.
“Our staff have been talking back and forth, but he has got a big job to do and so do I,” he said.
With the clock ticking, tensions ran high Wednesday morning in a House Judiciary Committee hearing about whether the president’s executive action is unconstitutional because it allegedly makes law, intruding on Congress’ authority
That issue has been the central thorn in the Homeland Security funding fight. After October’s government shutdown, Republicans struck a deal to fund all agencies except Homeland Security, which was given the end-February deadline, in order to pressure the president to back down.
“For the past six weeks, Republicans this year appear to be trying to outdo themselves,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said, referring to a partial government shutdown in October 2013.
Last week, a Texas federal judge passed a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking Obama’s orders — the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Resident (DAPA) programs. The district court sided with governors and attorney generals from 26 states.
Republicans saw this as a victory. On Tuesday Senate majority whip John Cornyn said that, due to the federal injunction, no money would go toward the programs.
At the House Judiciary hearing, Republicans blamed Democrats for the crisis.
“There is no one trying to defund DHS except Democrats,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho., said. “We funded everything except President Obama’s illegal executive action.”
Democrats had a different view.
“We should not be holding DHS funding hostage for questions the [federal district] court is already answering,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Florida. “Some members of the conservative majority are more interested in pleasing anti-immigrant groups.”