WASHINGTON – Ahead of a looming partial agency shutdown, the head of Homeland Security increased pressure on Congress to fully fund the department, warning that border control security and other counterterrorism efforts will “grind to a halt.”
Secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday told a conference that a short-term extension would be problematic and that inadequate funding after Friday’s midnight deadline would deal the department a substantial blow.
“It’s like trying to drive across country on no more than five miles of gas at a time and you don’t know when the next gas station is going to appear,” Johnson said of any incremental funding.
A partial shutdown would affect anti-terror efforts, Johnson said.
On Tuesday, Senate GOP leaders agreed to Democratic demands and announced legislation to fund the department without contentious immigration provisions opposed by Democrats and President Barack Obama.
But early reviews from House conservatives were negative ahead of a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning, their first since returning from a weeklong congressional recess. Several insisted they could not accept the two-part strategy proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: a vote on legislation to fund the Homeland Security Department, and a separate vote to overturn Obama’s recent executive actions sparing millions of immigrants in this country illegally from deportation.
The approach “is tantamount to surrender, and won’t meet with support in the people’s House,” said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. “I will fight against any funding bill that does not fully defund the president’s illegal actions.”
Yet with a partial shutdown set to trigger at midnight Friday without congressional action, options were few for Republicans who won full control of Congress in November’s midterm elections in part on promises to block Obama’s immigration policies.
They could allow the agency’s funding to expire, violating their leaders’ promises that there would be no more shutdowns on the GOP watch. They could try to pass a short-term extension of current funding levels, postponing the conflict to another day. Or they could go along with McConnell’s strategy of funding the agency fully while registering their disapproval of Obama’s immigration policies with a separate vote.
“I don’t know what’s not to like about this,” McConnell said. “This is an approach that respects both points of view and gives senators an opportunity to go on record on both, both funding the Department of Homeland Security and expressing their opposition to what the president did last November.”
For some Senate Republicans, eager to move beyond fighting over immigration while courting a shutdown of an agency whose mission includes battling terrorism, the choice was clear.
“I think Mitch’s bifurcated voting process is probably acceptable to the vast majority of us,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I just don’t know how we do it any other way.”
There was criticism from some Senate conservatives, notably Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential 2016 presidential candidate. But it was unclear how widespread the sentiment was.
For their part, after initial reluctance Senate Democrats looked ready to go along with the Senate GOP leader.
“The issue’s very simple: Fully fund the Department of Homeland Security,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
McConnell’s concession came as Senate Democrats repeatedly raised the issue of terrorism against the GOP, suggesting a partial shutdown would put the nation at risk at a dangerous time. Obama scheduled an immigration event in Miami on Wednesday, picking a presidential swing state to keep the pressure on the GOP.
Boehner faced pressures of his own, from conservatives in his caucus who will be incensed if he moves to follow McConnell’s lead and bow to Democratic demands. Boehner’s office issued a statement that neither accepted nor rejected the proposal McConnell outlined after weeks of gridlock.
“The speaker has been clear: The House has acted, and now Senate Democrats need to stop hiding. Will they continue to block funding for the Department of Homeland Security or not?” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
One House Republican allied with Boehner predicted McConnell’s plan might win approval. Noting that a federal judge in Texas has issued an order blocking implementation of Obama’s plan, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said the court had “effectively stopped the president’s executive action,” at least now. “So I don’t think we’d run the risk of shutting down Homeland Security,” he added.
The standoff dates to last fall, when Boehner told fellow Republicans they should allow the funding of Homeland Security without conditions until after the elections, when Republicans would have more leverage.
Republicans won control of the Senate, but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome Democratic blocking actions. As a result, they have been unable to force a vote on House-passed DHS funding legislation that includes the repeal of the immigration policies Obama put into effect in 2012 and last fall.
The stand-alone immigration bill McConnell is now proposing, which is likely to face a test vote on Friday, focuses just on Obama’s most recent immigration directives, which extended work permits and deportation stays to some 4 million immigrants in the country illegally. It left untouched the 2012 policy, which granted protections immigrants brought illegally to the United States as kids, usually by their parents. Nonetheless the bill faces likely defeat by Senate Democrats and a certain veto by Obama.