Pressure builds on GOP as deadline to fund DHS nears

Pressure is building on Republicans to avoid a partial shutdown of the Homeland Security Department amid an escalating battle over President Obama's immigration policies. 

The GOP leaders are being squeezed from one side by conservatives insisting that legislation funding the agency must include provisions to undo Obama's executive actions shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. And they're being pressed from the other by Obama and the Democrats who are demanding a “clean” proposal absent the immigration add-ons.


With the Senate at an impasse – and the clock ticking quickly toward a Feb. 28 shutdown of the agency – some centrist Republicans on and off Capitol Hill are starting to lean more to the Democrats' side, wary of both the practical effects of a DHS shutdown on national security, and the political harm such an event would do to their party.

“They should go ahead and pass a clean DHS bill,” Alfonso Aguilar, who headed the Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush, said Friday. “Congress is controlled by Republicans [and] the reality is that if they don't pass the budget, people will blame the Republicans.

“They've had enough time to vent,” added Aguilar. “It's now time to lead.”

The remarks echo those coming from some Republicans on both sides of the Capitol, who are quick to note that the GOP suffered in the eyes of the public following the government shutdown of 2013 and the string of shutdowns orchestrated by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the 1990s.

Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) all voiced those concerns to The Hill this month. 

“Ultimately, we are going to be voting on a clean or cleaner DHS appropriations bill,” Dent said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued more recently that this week's federal court ruling against Obama's executive actions gives GOP leaders the “perfect reason” to ensure the Homeland Security Department doesn't shut down. 

“We should be working together despite the obstruction of our Democratic colleagues to resolve this issue so that we don’t shut it down,” McCain said on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” program. “Now we have the perfect reason to not shut it down because the courts have decided, at least initially, in our favor.”

The Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on a House-passed Homeland Security bill that includes the immigration amendments, marking the fourth attempt by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to defeat a Democratic filibuster. The effort is expected to fail, leaving Republican leaders in both chambers with the sticky question of how to proceed.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has repeatedly said that the House has done its job and the ball is in the Senate's court. But an impasse in the upper chamber could force his hand. That sets the stage for a high-stakes meeting of the House Republican conference on Wednesday morning, where GOP leaders are sure to hear an earful from all sides less than 72 hours before Homeland Security funding expires.

Complicating their decision, a number of conservatives in both chambers are using the Texas ruling as fuel for their argument that Obama's new immigration programs are illegal and Republicans should dig in even deeper to ensure they never get off the ground.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said this week that, if Republicans hold firm, Democrats will be blamed for the DHS shutdown.

“That amnesty program has now been declared illegal by a federal court, and so Senate Democrats should look very closely at this opinion and decide if they are willing to jeopardize national security, which is both reckless and irresponsible in order to try to hold DHS funding hostage,” Cruz said.

Aguilar, for one, thinks that strategy is “reckless,” saying Cruz and others threatening a shutdown “are a menace to the legislative process.”

“They're politically tone-deaf,” said Aguilar, an opponent of Obama's executive actions who now leads the American Principles in Action's Latino Partnership. “Let the courts take care of the president's actions, and let the Congress focus on [immigration reform] legislation.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have had a much easier role in the debate. They've defended Obama's executive actions from the start and have been only too happy to highlight the Republican infighting on a topic that has long-divided the GOP.

“They are home and getting an earful about how irresponsible it is to not to fund homeland security,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. “To defund DHS, with all that we are seeing in Europe and the Middle East, is just plain reckless.”