McConnell moves to stop DHS shutdown

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellFive takeaways from Florida Senate debate Liberal groups call for delaying cures bill to next year Conservative groups urge against extending energy tax breaks MORE took steps Monday to prevent a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security by splitting off legislation attacking President Obama’s immigration actions from the funding fight.

The Kentucky Republican is seeking to fast-track legislation to eliminate two new immigration programs launched by Obama late last year, while allowing a 2012 initiative targeting younger immigrants to continue as designed.

McConnell’s move sets the stage for separate votes on a measure to fund the Homeland Security Department (DHS) past Friday and to dismantle Obama’s unilateral efforts to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.

A House-passed proposal combining those two efforts had hit a wall in the Senate, where Democrats on Monday united for a fourth time this month to block the measure over their opposition to the provisions undoing Obama’s executive actions.

The DHS will suffer a partial shutdown if Congress doesn’t act before Saturday.

McConnell said he wanted to take away Democrats’ excuse for not voting against Obama’s 2014 actions, which several centrist Democrats had previously criticized.

“Some Democrats give the impression they want Congress to address the overreach. But when they vote, they always seem to have an excuse for supporting actions they once criticized,” he said on the floor. “So I’m going to begin proceedings on targeted legislation that would only address the most recent overreach from November.

“It isn’t tied to DHS funding. It removes their excuse,” he added.

McConnell’s decision could mark a step forward from the stalemate over the funding debate, which had left GOP leaders of both chambers struggling for a way to prevent an agency shutdown while appeasing conservatives insisting the immigration riders be a part of the package.

It remains unclear how the strategy will be received by House conservatives, but the office of Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTop Lobbyists 2016: Hired Guns The Hill's 12:30 Report Rep. Meadows to run for Freedom Caucus chairman MORE (R-Ohio) was quick to indicate its support.

“This vote will highlight the irresponsible hypocrisy of any Senate Democrat who claims to oppose President Obama’s executive overreach on immigration, but refuses to vote to stop it,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement. “If we are going to work together on the American peoples priorities, Washington Democrats must be honest with the people they represent.”

Democrats quickly criticized McConnell's decision, saying it won't help prevent a shutdown of DHS. 

“It’s becoming clear Senator McConnell realizes he must separate himself from the far right, but the bottom line is this proposal doesn’t bring us any closer to actually funding DHS, and Republicans still have no real plan to achieve that goal," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. 

He added that any immigration debate should happen after lawmakers pass a bill to fund Homeland Security. 

McConnell’s move sets up what is sure to be an animated meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday morning, where Boehner and other GOP leaders are certain to get an earful from conservatives insisting the immigration provisions remain attached to the Homeland Security bill and centrists leaning toward a cleaner bill for the sake of keeping the agency up and running.

Boehner had been adamant that the ball remain in the Senate’s court after the House last month passed a $40 billion funding proposal that included several amendments undoing Obama’s unilateral efforts to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.

McConnell, meanwhile, had said he was “stuck” in the face of Democrats insisting on a clean bill absent the immigration amendments. Monday’s 47-46 vote was designed to drive home that point.

The debate has put GOP leaders in a bind, caught between a desire to undo Obama’s executive actions and a fear that their party will suffer the public blame if the DHS is shuttered during a period of heightened terrorist threats, including one over the weekend on Minnesota’s sprawling Mall of America.

A number of Democrats pounced on that episode just ahead of Monday’s vote, accusing Republicans of playing Russian roulette, in the words of Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), with the nation’s security.

“Rather than acting to protect my state from the threat, there are people who are actively contemplating a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D).

A wild card in the debate has been last week’s ruling by a Texas-based federal judge against Obama’s deportation relief programs. That decision has caused some Republicans to double down on their argument that the programs are illegal and Congress should terminate them as part of the DHS package. Others, however, contend the ruling is indication that the courts will handle Obama’s executive actions and Congress should focus on keeping the Homeland Security agency running.

Fueling the conservatives’ argument, the Justice Department on Monday requested an emergency court order allowing the administration to launch the programs despite the Texas ruling. If the stay is granted, thousands of illegal immigrants could begin submitting their applications.

Obama on Wednesday is scheduled to hold an immigration town hall in Miami, an event that seems designed to raise the pressure further on GOP leaders.

—Scott Wong, Rebecca Shabad and Jordain Carney contributed.

This story was updated at 8:19 p.m.