Government & Politics

Congress closes in on short-term Homeland Security bill

Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., holds up a copy of the Constitution while talking to reporters as House Republicans emerge from a closed-door meeting on how to deal with the impasse over the Homeland Security budget.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., holds up a copy of the Constitution while talking to reporters as House Republicans emerge from a closed-door meeting on how to deal with the impasse over the Homeland Security budget. AP

WASHINGTON – Congress closed in Friday on approving a short-term spending bill for the Homeland Security Department that would avert a partial agency shutdown hours before it was to begin.

The legislation also leaves intact Obama administration executive actions on immigration that Republicans have vowed to overturn. But Republicans insisted that passing a short-term bill preserved their ability to keep fighting them.

An early vote in the House clearing the way for final passage of the bill was approved easily, 240-183.

“The House must pass this bill in short order to keep the lights on at the Department of Homeland Security in the near term,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky. “Hopefully, this will buy us this additional time that we clearly need.”

But Senate Republicans had already admitted defeat. As debate proceeded in the House, the Senate voted 68-31 to approve a full-year bill free of contentious immigration provisions. Some House Republicans predicted that they would eventually end up doing the same thing.

For now, the three-week stopgap measure would allow lawmakers to keep the Homeland Security Department running at a time of heightened threats worldwide – even if it does little more than postpone the fight for another day.

“It’s the best solution that we have available to us right now,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. “Nobody wants to shut down the Department of Homeland Security.”

The bill would extend current funding levels for the department until March 19. Without action, DHS would begin to shut down at midnight Friday, furloughing 30,000 workers. Another 200,000 would be deemed essential and continue to report to work, albeit without pay.

In a complicated series of votes occurring simultaneously on both ends of the Capitol, the House prepared to vote on the three-week plan and send it to the Senate, while the Senate held a series of votes including approval of a “clean” bill to fund DHS through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year, without immigration provisions.

Once the House had acted on the three-week measure, the short-term bill was expected to also pass the Senate and gain Obama’s signature.

Adding an element of drama, House Democrats announced plans to oppose the three-week stopgap measure, forcing Speaker John Boehner to pass it with exclusively Republican votes. But the bill appeared to command enough support to pass, even though it faced opposition from the right and the left.

Some of the most conservative Republicans said they couldn’t support the legislation because it would not stop Obama’s immigration policies granting work permits and deportation stays to millions of immigrants who live illegally in the United States. The argument advanced by leadership-aligned lawmakers that a federal judge has already put those policies on hold was unpersuasive to this group.

“I am not going to vote under any circumstances to fund illegal conduct,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. “It does not make any difference whether the funding is for three weeks, three months or a full fiscal year. If it’s illegal, it’s illegal.”

Some of the more establishment-minded lawmakers, by contrast, said the House should not be wasting its time with a stopgap bill but should accept the inevitable and vote to fund the department through the rest of the year with no strings attached. Since Senate Democrats have refused to agree to a spending bill rolling back Obama’s immigration policies, and Obama has threatened to veto any such legislation, these lawmakers argued the House would have to retreat in the end anyway.

“The only question is when – tomorrow or in three weeks,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “Some folks just have a harder time facing political reality than others.”

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who has been on Capitol Hill every day lobbying lawmakers to fund his department, sent a plea to congressional leaders Thursday asking them to pass a full-year bill, not a stop-gap measure. “A short-term continuing resolution exacerbates the uncertainty for my workforce and puts us back in the same position, on the brink of a shutdown just days from now,” Johnson wrote.

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