Senate edges away from DHS shutdown

Senate edges away from DHS shutdown
© Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Congress appeared to step back from the brink of a partial government shutdown Wednesday as the Senate voted overwhelmingly to move forward with a clean bill funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The Senate opened debate on the bill in a 98-2 vote after Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (R-Ky.) agreed to strip out provisions that would reverse President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. 

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The vote broke a weeks-long stalemate in the upper chamber and appeared to pave the way for passage of the clean bill later this week, potentially as early as Thursday.

But while senators seem eager to stave off a shutdown of the DHS at midnight on Friday, the fate of the bill in the House remains unclear.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner won't say whether he'd back Biden over Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Amash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise MORE (R-Ohio) repeatedly declined to take a position on the bill at a brief press conference, emphasizing that it’s up to the Senate to act on funding.

“Until the Senate does something, we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner won't say whether he'd back Biden over Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Amash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise MORE said.

An overwhelming vote in the Senate for the clean bill could strengthen the Speaker’s hand, should he choose to defy conservatives and drop demands for defunding Obama’s immigration order.

A whip list compiled by The Hill indicates a growing split in the House GOP conference over whether to back McConnell’s gambit. Though some conservatives are vocally opposed, many appear ready to let the fight over Obama’s deportation deferrals play out in court.

Democrats, meanwhile, quickly united behind the clean bill.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure it passes by an overwhelming vote,” Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Webb: Questions for Robert Mueller Steyer's impeachment solution is dead wrong MORE (D-Nev.) said.

Congress has only two days left to prevent the DHS from closing down. Should the funding be allowed to lapse, “essential” employees at agencies like the Coast Guard, Secret Service and U.S. Customs Service and Border Protection would work without pay, while thousands of others would be furloughed.

The White House has warned that a Homeland Security shutdown would threaten national security, and on Wednesday amplified its calls for a clean bill funding the department.

“We’re confident that the right thing to do is for Congress to fulfill their responsibility to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security has a budget that allows them to be funded through the end of the year,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “That’s seems like a pretty basic responsibility.”

Boehner is scheduled to hold a press conference Thursday where he could say what he plans to do next.

Should Boehner choose to bring a clean bill to the floor, Democrats would need to deliver a significant number of votes.

Democratic leaders warned that conservatives in the Senate could hold up the funding measure, but staunch opponents of Obama’s immigration action, including Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHow to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy Cruz calls for 'every penny' of El Chapo's criminal enterprise to be used for Trump's wall after sentencing Conservatives defend Chris Pratt for wearing 'Don't Tread On Me' T-shirt MORE (R-Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Health care moves to center stage of Democratic primary fight | Sanders, Biden trade sharps jabs on Medicare for All | Senate to vote on 9/11 bill next week | Buttigieg pushes for cheaper insulin Senate to vote on 9/11 victims bill on Tuesday Meghan McCain slams Rand Paul over blocking 9/11 compensation funding: 'This is a disgrace' MORE (R-Utah), voted to advance the bill Wednesday. Sens. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage House gears up for Mueller testimony Trump's no racist — he's an equal opportunity offender MORE (R-Ala.) and James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Trump says US will not sell Turkey F-35s after Russian missile defense system purchase MORE (R-Okla.) were the only defectors.

A day earlier, Cruz, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, had called McConnell’s new plan a “mistake.”

The timing on a final Senate vote remains unclear. Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP wants commitment that Trump will sign budget deal Hillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school MORE (R-Texas) said it might not happen until Sunday unless there is unanimous consent.

Still, he appeared confident that a shutdown could be avoided, saying, “I think we’ll meet the deadline.” He declined to say whether a short-term continuing resolution might be needed to keep the DHS open.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. Depends on the House. It takes us a little longer to act over here because of the Senate rules, so the House can vote pretty quickly,” he said.

House conservatives have other ideas.

Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksOvernight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker Conservatives ask Barr to lay out Trump's rationale for census question House sends Trump border aid bill after Pelosi caves to pressure from moderates MORE (R-Ala.) said “there’s no way on God’s green Earth” he would vote for a funding bill that didn’t defund Obama’s actions. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) downplayed the impact of a DHS shutdown, saying it would only result in a “slowdown of the agency.”

“I don’t think there’d be any impact on the day-to-day life of Americans. They’ll wake up the next morning, all the media will talk about it, and people will say, ‘Well, what difference does it make?’ ” Huelskamp added.

Other House Republicans said they are ready to accept a funding bill without the immigration riders.

“If a clean bill comes here, we have to accept a vote on it,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who has been critical of his colleagues during previous funding showdowns.

King suggested the GOP brand would suffer if the agency were to shut down.

“People think we’re crazy. There are terrorist attacks all over the world and we’re talking about closing down Homeland Security. This is like living in a world with crazy people,” King said.

King acknowledged that view is “probably not” shared by the majority of his conference, but predicted a clean bill would pass in the House with Democratic support.