WASHINGTON — The Republican-led Congress returns to town Monday with no viable plan to avert a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security less than five days away on Friday.
The GOP is caught between wanting to use DHS funding to block to President Barack Obama’s executive actions to shield upwards of 4 million people from deportation and give them 3-year work permits, and not wanting to be held responsible for shutting down the department.
In a testament to the party’s struggles, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has teed up a procedural vote Monday afternoon on the same bill that Democrats have successfully filibustered three different times. The bill, passed by the House, overturns Obama’s immigration initiatives dating back to 2011. Senate Democrats intend to filibuster it a fourth time.
It is the first critical leadership test for McConnell, who ruled out shutdowns shortly after his party was elected to the Senate majority. “There is no possibility of a government shutdown,” he told TIME magazine.
An order by a federal judge last week to temporarily halt Obama’s immigration moves hasn’t moved GOP leaders off their demands to roll back the actions, and Democrats remain equally determined to defend them. Part of the reason is they don’t want to set a precedent in which Republicans can force policy changes with threats to stop the government from functioning.
“It will not change anything in terms of our approach on DHS,” a Democratic Senate leadership aide said. “Our guys are confident the [executive action] is based in a sound legal framework. And part of this fight is about making it clear that we are not going to pay a ransom just to keep the government open.”
In addition to the Senate filibuster, Republicans are stymied by veto threats by Obama over his immigration initiatives. It was a self-made trap with no clear end-game: the GOP funded almost the entire government through September, but financed DHS, which is tasked with enforcing immigration law, only through February.
A CNN/ORC poll conducted Feb. 12-15 found that Republicans would take the fall for a DHS shutdown: 53 percent of Americans would blame the GOP while 30 percent would blame Obama. (Thirteen percent said they’d blame both.)
A handful of Republicans have called on their leaders to fold and fund DHS cleanly, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who faces reelection next year, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who says he might run for president.
Numerous House Republicans and prominent conservative commentators are calling on Senate Republicans to trigger the “nuclear option” and abolish the filibuster. But McConnell and even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a leader among immigration hard-liners, have both said they don’t support that idea.
If Congress fails to act in time, DHS won’t completely stop functioning, but thousands of workers will be furloughed and tens of thousands of national security personnel deemed essential will be forced to work without pay.
The Obama administration intends to keep up the pressure. On Monday afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson plans to hold a news conference to warn against a shutdown. On Wednesday, Obama is scheduled to travel to Florida to hold a town hall about his executive actions on immigration.