WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are anxiously bracing for a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security at the end of the week, even as the Senate took steps to try to end the stalemate on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced an agreement to hold separate votes on a “clean” Homeland Security funding bill and on a bill to block President Barack Obama’s immigration executive actions. De-linking the two issues is a reversal of course for McConnell after he failed repeatedly to break a Democratic filibuster on legislation that conditions DHS funding on stopping Obama’s actions.
The tentative deal by the Senate leaders puts House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in a jam between hard-line conservatives, who are demanding he hold firm against funding DHS cleanly, and the responsibility to keep Homeland Security funded.
“I don’t know what the House will do,” McConnell admitted. “But I do think we have a responsibility to act.”
The Senate remains stuck for now, though. Reid insisted, remarkably, that Senate Democrats wouldn’t allow a vote without a commitment from Boehner to bring up a “clean” DHS funding bill in the House.
“We can’t do it alone. It’s a bicameral legislature. Unless Boehner’s in on the deal, it won’t happen,” Reid told reporters.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, wouldn’t commit to bringing up the clean DHS bill on Tuesday, instead demanding that Senate Democrats act to fund the department. House Republicans are scheduled to meet on Wednesday morning to discuss what to do.
“The Speaker has been clear: the House has acted, and now Senate Democrats need to stop hiding,” Steel said in an email. “Will they continue to block funding for the Department of Homeland Security or not?”
McConnell said the Senate would vote Friday to proceed to standalone legislation by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) which seeks to overturn Obama’s immigration actions announced in November 2014. Some red state Democrats have indicated support for reversing those actions by the president.
Senate Republicans are also divided on the McConnell strategy. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) said the recent court order halting Obama’s immigration actions was a “victory” for conservatives that could make it easier to fund DHS. But numerous Republican senators expressed little confidence in averting a shutdown by Friday.
Heritage Action, a conservative activist group, came out strongly against the McConnell-Reid plan on Tuesday, demanding that Republicans use the “power of the purse” to reverse Obama’s immigration actions.
“As the Majority Leader said last year, the power of the purse is the ‘only tool’ Congress has to rein in executive overreach. As such, Heritage Action will key vote against any DHS bill that would allow for the funding of the President’s unconstitutional amnesty,” Heritage Action chief Michael Needham said in a statement. A “key vote” is a vote an advocacy group will count in scoring a lawmaker’s performance on issues important to the group.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said Republicans need to stand firm against Obama’s actions. “I remain of the view that this is a principled position that Congress should be absolutely clear on,” he said. “So I think it’s a big deal.” Asked repeatedly by TPM if he would support the McConnell strategy to hold separate votes on DHS funding and immigration, Sessions stared at the questioner silently before looking down as his senators-only elevator closed.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) wasn’t particularly confident that both chambers of Congress would be able to act in time.
“We’re on the brink of another government shutdown by the Republicans,” he said.