The new Congress has only just begun and Republican leaders are already debating how to handle a looming shutdown fight over immigration.
Funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires Feb. 27 and conservatives want any new legislation extending the department’s cash line to include language stopping President Obama’s plan to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. The White House indicated last month that it would veto measures blocking the president’s executive action, which would lead to a partial government shutdown if Congress doesn’t back down.
Speaker John Boehner headed off a larger shutdown in December by passing legislation funding the government through September, except for DHS, which handles immigration enforcement, among other things. At the time, he argued Republicans would be in a better position to win a fight once the new, majority-GOP Senate was sworn in. On Thursday, he assured members that his plan to challenge Obama has not changed, even in the wake of a terrorist attack on Paris that’s put national security issues back on the front page.
“I said we would fight it tooth and nail when we had the majority and I meant it,” Boehner said in a weekly press briefing.
The immigration dispute is designed almost perfectly to divide the GOP. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he wants to keep the party from appearing “scary” and House Republican leaders have indicated they want to be known for more than constant high-stakes confrontations with the White House. A number of Republicans, although increasingly marginalized, have urged the party to focus on passing immigration reform instead of demanding more deportations. But Boehner, who put down a significant rebellion from right-leaning members to win his post this week, is under intense pressure to confront Obama with every tool at his disposal.
Reading the tea leaves on how far Republicans are willing to go to stop Obama can be difficult, in part because all sides insist they’re against shutting down the department and leaders have yet to put forward a formal plan. Proponents of attaching the immigration language argue it’s Obama’s fault if DHS goes dark because he and Democrats refused to accede to their legitimate demands.
“I don't believe that the funding of the department is, in fact, at risk,” Boehner said Thursday. “What is at risk is the rule of law and the sanctity of America's Constitution."
It’s clear from public statements, however, that some Republicans are uneasy with using Homeland Security funding as a bargaining chip in the immigration fight, especially after this week’s deadly attack on a satirical newspaper in Paris. If things come to a head, they could potentially push leadership towards splitting the two issues across separate measures, which would all but guarantee a defeat on immigration but avoid a politically explosive shutdown.
"I don't believe that the funding of the department is, in fact, at risk. What is at risk is the rule of law and the sanctity of America's Constitution."'
“Whatever we do on that, as far as immigration, cannot in any way be allowed to interfere with our counterterrorism methods,” Congressman Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said on Fox News Wednesday. “I mean, the juxtaposition would be terrible: a terrorist slaughter in Paris, and the U.S. cuts back on Homeland Security funding.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a prominent hawk, warned Republicans the same day that they should tread carefully.
"I hope that we could challenge the executive action of the president in a mature fashion," Graham told CNN. "I've never been for shutting down Homeland Security."
Asked whether the Paris attack affected his calculus, Boehner took issue with the notion Republicans were threatening to defund the agency.
“The issue isn’t about funding the Department of Homeland security,” he said. “Members of Congress support funding the department, but we cannot continue to allow the president to go around the Congress, to go around the law and take unilateral action.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said on Wednesday that Republican leaders were still working out a strategy to keep DHS running while separately maintaining the fight against President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
"We want to stop this executive action, but I think the responsible individuals like myself have no desire to shut down this department,” McCaul said on CNN Wednesday night. “It's too important to the national security interest of the United States."
McConnell agreed Wednesday that the department must remain open.
"It's an important piece of legislation and we'll decide in February how to handle it, but at the end of the day we're going to fund the department, obviously,” McConnell told reporters.
Republicans have some leeway here in that much of Homeland Security’s staff would likely be deemed “essential” in the case of a shutdown, meaning they would continue working regardless. But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned on Wednesday that Congress’ decision to fund the department with a short continuing resolution rather than a longer-term bill is already having negative effects.
“We cannot continue through the course of the year to function on a continuing resolution,” Johnson told reporters. “That poses real risk to homeland security.”
Amanda Sakuma contributed to this report.