Congress and the White House are heading toward a high-stakes showdown over immigration, with financing for the crucial Department of Homeland Security at stake at the very moment that terrorist attacks in Paris last week have Americans on edge.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote Wednesday on a $39.7 billion bill to keep the department open after money runs out Feb 28, but with language attached that would aggressively roll back several of President Barack Obama’s immigration actions.
Obama says he wants to sign a bill to keep funding the department but that he’ll veto it if takes on his immigration orders.
Lawmakers must find a way to fund Homeland Security, which handles immigration and national security issues, after the last Congress agreed in December to pay for the department only through the end of February – Republican payback aimed at Obama for November’s immigration actions.
“This is exactly what could be expected in response to the president’s unilateral action and the past history of broken negotiations,” said Noah Pickus, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. “The legacy of distrust on both sides builds and builds until we are now reduced to tit-for-tat actions. This isn’t governance; it’s war by other means.”
In a nod to conservatives, Republicans intend to add amendments to the funding bill to reverse several of Obama’s immigration moves, including last year’s action to shield from deportation some 5 million people who are living in the country illegally and the 2012 executive order that protected many young immigrants.
“Our goal here is to fund the Department of Homeland Security,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday. “And our second goal is to stop the president’s executive overreach. This is not the way our government was intended to work.”
The bill faces fierce opposition from congressional Democrats and the White House. They say linking immigration and homeland security funding is a dangerous precedent, especially in the wake of last week’s deadly terrorist attack in Paris at the satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The administration condemned the Republican plan Monday, saying it would “place restrictions on the department’s ability to set smart enforcement priorities focused on criminals, national security threats and recent border crossers.”
“There’s never a good time for Republicans to do something like this, but now it seems like a particularly bad time,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday, alluding to the Paris attack.
Obama may not have to worry about wielding his veto pen. There’s enough bipartisan ambivalence over the measure in the Republican-controlled Senate that it would likely fall short of the 60 votes needed to send the bill to the president.
The immigration debate is exposing fissures within the Republican Party.
Several Republicans fear that a prolonged immigration fight might shut down the Homeland Security Department – or cripple its ability to combat terrorism – while spurring a backlash by Hispanic voters in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
“I’m hoping better angels of our nature come forward and we fund the Department of Homeland Security, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attack,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. “I want to make sure that there are no interruptions of essential security services for our nation.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Obama’s immigration actions had “managed to unify the entire (Republican) caucus” in the Senate. But she, too, has reservations about the House bill.
“We do, in order to preserve our institutional role, need to have some response. I would be concerned if the funding restrictions affected the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to carry out its vital functions,” she said. “Another way to challenge the president might be in court.”
Moderate Senate Democrats, who’ve shown a willingness to buck Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and vote with Republicans on some legislation, have expressed concern about the House Homeland Security/immigration bill.
“It would be something I would be very skeptical about, using that tactic to defund Homeland Security,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “I would be very skeptical about that.”
“Let’s look at the last shutdown: Only 13.6 percent of DHS employees were furloughed,” he said on CNN. “It’s deemed essential services. No matter what happens to this dysfunctional place, we’re going to keep this nation as safe as possible.”
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a frequent critic of Boehner, said House Republicans couldn’t worry about their Senate counterparts.
“The House needs to do what we can do and encourage the Senate to do the right thing,” King said. “When I look at the language that’s in there, most of the stuff I brought forward in the past, when I see that in a bill coming to the floor, I’m willing to step up and tell my colleagues to vote for it.”