With less than four days to go until funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires, Republican leaders are scrambling to find a way out of a political problem of their own making.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled his plan B on Monday night after trying and failing for the fourth time to advance the House bill that would fund the department in exchange for blocking the high-profile immigration reforms President Obama announced last fall. With the original plan unable to overcome a Democratic filibuster, the majority leader is now pivoting to standalone legislation that would narrowly target the president’s reforms as a way to keep the immigration fight center stage without jeopardizing funding for a federal agency that’s tasked with keeping Americans safe. “I’m ready to try another way,” the Kentucky Republican said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
It’s unclear if enough of his colleagues feel the same way.
McConnell hasn’t yet said specifically how he would address Homeland Security funding, but it appears as though the plan is to hold separate votes on two standalone bills, one blocking the president’s reforms, the other to fund DHS. That plan has so far received a mixed reaction in the upper chamber and, even if it were to succeed there, it would still need to clear the House, where rank-and-file Republicans have shown no interest in abandoning their quest to use DHS funding to force Obama’s hand. But the fact that McConnell is now scrambling to find an alternative to a plan that has been DOA since it was hatched last year suggests that Republican leaders are finally coming to terms with the reality of what a quasi-shutdown would mean—both in the political world and the real one.
For starters there is the obvious and immediate political risk for the GOP: Polling shows that Americans will overwhelmingly blame Republicans for a partial shutdown of DHS. And, if that weren’t enough to give McConnell heartburn, the agency’s most high-profile task—fighting terrorism—narrowly overtook the economy earlier this year as the most important issue for Americans in 2015, according to a Pew Research Center survey from last month. As Rep. Tom Cole, a respected strategist within the GOP, told the New York Times: “I don’t think shutdowns and showdowns are the way to win the presidency in 2016.” Or as John McCain put it even more bluntly to the Washington Post: “We need to fund the Department of Homeland Security. We cannot shut down the Department of Homeland Security.” The Arizona Republican repeated himself one more time for good measure. “I said we cannot shut down the Department of Homeland Security.”
In reality, as my colleague Betsy Woodruff and others have already documented, if DHS funding expires at midnight Friday, the agency will shut down largely in name only. “The homeland is going to be OK,” Woodruff explained last week. “Specifically, a missed funding deadline means a small fraction of the department’s employees would be furloughed.” By law, employees who are deemed essential are required to keep working during a shutdown, albeit in many cases without a paycheck. And the DHS is full of essential employees.
Still, that doesn’t really help Republicans get out of their current mess. They can’t argue that defunding the agency won’t have a noticeable impact and then turn around and try to use the department’s budget as leverage to get what they want. And that’s where the irony comes in. If DHS funding does expire, it won’t specifically undercut Obama’s immigration reforms (which are self-funded by application fees) but it will harm a handful of programs that have traditionally been Republican favorites. The E-Verify program, which was created to help employers filter out undocumented immigrants from their pool of new hires, would be halted. The department also wouldn’t be able to upgrade “obsolete remote video surveillance systems” near the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, where Republicans have long wanted to beef up security. And, while the Secret Service would still protect the president, the much-maligned agency wouldn’t get the $50 million it needs to help protect the emerging field of 2016 hopefuls and complete the agency overhaul that the GOP has been demanding.
In the end, then, Republicans will need to decide between now and the end of the week how much they’re willing to sacrifice in the larger immigration fight. So far, it appears like the answer is: more than they originally meant to.