With just four days to go until the Department of Homeland Security runs out of funding, lawmakers are searching for a way to break the logjam over immigration that has put the agency’s budget on the chopping block.
The roots of the ongoing battle date back to December, when lawmakers passed a $1 trillion budget bill just hours before a midnight shutdown deadline. One condition that became crucial to that package’s passage was a measure – designed to appease conservatives angry about President Barack Obama’s executive action to offer millions of undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation – funding the Department of Homeland Security only until February 27.
Now, just a few days before that self-imposed deadline, Republicans are struggling for unity within their own party after House leaders tied the agency’s funding to a rollback of the president’s immigration proposals. Senate Democrats have stood firm against that measure, voting four consecutive times to block the entire package even from being debated on the Senate floor.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he plans to separate the DHS funding issue from the immigration language, putting forward two separate votes rather than one. Under the proposal, the Senate would vote on a "clean" DHS budget bill with no add-ons that would fund the agency until October 1. The chamber would also vote on a separate bill, called "the Immigration Rule of Law Act," that would strip funding only for the president's November executive orders on immigration.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid responded that he wants assurances that the GOP-led House will deliver enough votes to pass the DHS funding plan.
And it’s not clear how the House will react to McConnell’s gambit. House Speaker John Boehner faces a vocal conservative bloc in the lower chamber, which argues that Obama’s immigration move represents a constitutional crisis which must be stopped at all costs. These advocates also note that, because the majority of DHS employees are considered essential employees who would be required to work despite a funding lapse, a DHS shutdown would not jeopardize America’s safety.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, an outspoken conservative who opposes the president's executive action, called McConnell's move "a mistake."
"Congress is obliged to use every constitutional check and balance we have to rein in President Obama's lawlessness, and that includes both our confirmation authority over nominees and the power of the purse," he said in a statement.
McConnell and Boehner could also try to push through a short-term “clean” bill by claiming that the immigration issue is already being addressed by the courts. Earlier this month, a Texas judge issued a temporary injunction forbidding the administration from implementing the deportation relief as planned. The Department of Justice has appealed the ruling.
Senate Republicans meet Tuesday to discuss the way forward, while Republicans in the House will huddle Wednesday morning.
Republican leaders also must weigh how the American public would react to the DHS shutdown, particularly in the wake of well-publicized terror threats against U.S. targets. Despite efforts to pin the blame squarely on Senate Democrats, who have blocked consideration of the funding bill, some in the GOP worry that the public would fault Republicans for the funding lapse.
"If we don't fund the Department of Homeland Security, we'll get blamed as a party,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday.
NBC's Luke Russert contributed.