Republicans are struggling to find a way to prevent an unnecessary shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security in one month.
The party faces a familiar dilemma: spark a crisis or infuriate its conservative base, which is demanding that Congress use the power of the purse to block President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
It’s the first big test for the new Republican-led Congress.
On Tuesday, a unified Senate Democratic caucus sent a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) demanding a “clean” DHS funding bill — a signal that they’ll filibuster House-passed legislation that attaches homeland security funding to a provision scrapping Obama’s authority to temporarily protect unlawful immigrants.
“The House bill cannot pass the Senate,” the senators wrote.
On Wednesday, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) introduced clean DHS funding legislation through fiscal year 2015, increasing the pressure on McConnell to consider it.
McConnell told reporters Tuesday that the Senate will bring up the House-approved DHS bill “as soon as it finishes” pending legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He wouldn’t suggest a backup plan if the bill fails in the chamber.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) blasted McConnell’s announcement.
“Let’s be clear,” he said. “Senator McConnell is putting our national security at risk because he is too timid to stand up to the right-wing extremists in his caucus.”
Even if the bill passes the Senate, the White House has threatened to veto it, along with any other legislation that targets Obama’s unilateral actions announced in November to protect nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation and let them apply for three-year work permits.
Speaker John Boehner, looking for an escape route, floated the possibility of the House authorizing a lawsuit against the president’s immigration actions inside a Republican conference meeting on Tuesday. Like the House-approved action last year to sue Obama over Obamacare implementation, the move appears aimed at finding an alternate outlet for conservative anger.
The predicament was created by the House GOP’s decision in December to fund most of the government through September 2015 but keep DHS on a short leash, keeping the immigration-enforcing agency open only through February. The aim was to placate conservatives angry about Obama’s executive actions.
On Dec. 11, Boehner said the House DHS bill sets up the new Republican Congress to “make a direct challenge to the president’s unilateral actions on immigration.” He promised to “take this fight to the president on the strongest possible ground – with new majorities that the American people elected.”
Boehner also promised that the House’s fight would include border security reform. But Republican leaders are struggling to secure support for border security legislation led by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) — they indefinitely delayed a vote on it scheduled for Monday. That further complicates Boehner’s task if his party lacks a Plan B to confront Obama.