In the past, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has repeatedly stepped in at the last minute to help President Obama and the majority Democrats in the Senate break a political impasse and avert a budgetary or economic crisis. As the Senate’s minority leader, the wily Kentucky Republican did so in the summer of 2011, just hours before the U.S. faced default - and then again in the fall of 2013 when he helped end a 16-day government shutdown.
Today, McConnell faces another thorny prospect – this time a partial shutdown of the Dept. of Homeland Security beginning midnight Friday unless the two parties and the White House resolve their differences over Obama’s executive orders on immigration policy.
Unlike previous political conflicts, when McConnell essentially rode in from the sidelines to throw a lifeline to the administration, as majority leader now he’s fully responsible for avoiding the unthinkable – a partial shutdown of the premier department created to protect Americans from attacks.
Related: Terror Group’s Threat to Mall of America Sharpens DHS Funding Debate
McConnell has a lot riding on this outcome, personally and politically. He vowed when he and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) took control of Congress in early January that there would never be another government shutdown on his watch. And with Americans growing concerned about terror threats posed by ISIS and other jihadist groups - including a weekend threat against the Mall of America in Minnesota – he understands that messing with the DHS’s $40 billion annual budget could backfire on the GOP heading into the 2016 presidential campaign.
The latest CNN/ORC poll reports that 53 percent of Americans said they would blame the GOP-led Congress if the DHS must shut down all but essential services. Meanwhile, 30 percent said they would blame President Obama and 13 percent say both would be at fault.
At issue is how to get around a House-passed bill that conditions full funding of the Homeland Security Dept. through the rest of the fiscal year on measures that would block implementation of Obama’s executive orders. Those orders protect nearly five million illegal immigrants and their children from the threat of deportation.
Related: Cruz Says GOP Plays a Losing Hand on DHS Spending
Obama’s executive orders have been held in abeyance by a federal court ruling in Texas last week and likely will remain in the appeal process for weeks or even months. Yet irate conservative House Republicans are insisting the restrictive language be preserved in the spending bill, despite Obama’s warnings he would veto the measure.
What to do? After failing a fourth time to break a Democratic filibuster and bring the House-passed measure to the Senate floor Monday evening, McConnell has proposed a Solomon-like solution: He would split the DHS spending bill in half. That would allow Congress to vote separately on DHS spending authority and a resolution allowing Senate Republicans and a handful of Democrats from red states to register their opposition to the president’s immigration policies.
“It’s another way to get the Senate unstuck,” McConnell said yesterday. “I was certainly glad to see that court decision. The issue will continue winding its way through the courts. In the meantime, Congress should try to do what it can.”
He added that his preference was to debate and pass the funding legislation. “But first we need to bring it to the floor. As long as Democrats continue to prevent us from even doing that, the new bill I’ve described offers another option we can turn to.”
Related: Tom Ridge Says U.S. Terror Risks Higher Now Than After 9/11
The prospects for even a partial shutdown of DHS seemed remote until recently. However, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters yesterday, “Right now, that does seem to be where we’re headed.” He said the government is preparing for that eventuality.
A partial shutdown doesn’t mean defense of the country would stop, of course. About 85 percent of the department’s 240,000 workers are deemed “essential,” and will have to continue reporting for work although their paychecks will be cut off for now. Critical agencies including the Secret Service, Border Patrol, Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will continue to operate at full speed.
But the furloughing of the remaining 30,000 non-essential DHS employees with administrative or clerical responsibilities could have damaging effects, The Washington Post noted today. That includes curtailment of training programs and federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as video surveillance of border areas of the Rio Grande Valley.
Related: GOP Doesn’t Blink on DHS Funding After Judge Bars Immigration Order
It’s unclear whether McConnell’s legislative gambit can pass muster in the Senate without at least six moderate or conservative Democrats breaking rank to help end the filibuster.
Republicans including Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine contend Congress should allow the question of the constitutionality of the president’s immigration orders to be resolved in the courts rather than in the political arena.
“I’ve always thought the judicial system was an alternative way to deal with the president’s overreach last November, and now that one court has ruled to put a stay on the his executive order, perhaps that frees us to go forward and get the department fully funded,” said Collins, who is working closely with McConnell.
Yesterday, the Obama administration asked U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen to lift his hold on the immigration executive orders, which he imposed in response to a lawsuit brought by 26 states against them. The government also filed an appeal of Hanen’s decision last week with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. Even if McConnell prevails in the Senate, Boehner would have a much harder time selling the approach to Republicans in his chamber – especially the highly vocal “hell no” arch conservatives who want to jam Obama in retaliation for his immigration initiatives.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a leading opponent of immigration reform, tweeted today he would oppose the McConnell approach. “Senators want separate bill to defund exec amnesty. Fine, when & only when Obama signs bill to defund exec amnesty, we will then fund DHS,” he wrote.
McConnell told reporters today he will go ahead with plans for two votes this week – one on a “clean” DHS spending bill and the other on Friday to defund Obama’s executive action on immigration. While Democrats were intrigued, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said he first wanted a guarantee from Boehner that the spending bill would survive a review in the House – which may be tough to get.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said McConnell announced the decision at a conference luncheon today, but that it had drawn anger and upset from more conservative members who believe McConnell was giving in to Democratic demands without holding the president accountable, according to the National Journal. Many Republicans in the meeting said there was still broad disagreement as to whether bowing to Democrats’ demands for a clean funding bill was the best course forward. If all else fails, Congress may have to punt once again and approve a short-term spending measure to keep the DHS doors open while the two sides slug it out.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: