GOP's dopey immigration ploy: Here's how the DHS funding fight plays out

Republicans said they'll absolutely fund Homeland Security, then got busy doing the exact opposite of that

Published January 12, 2015 6:41PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Last week, as images and video of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack were replayed over and over on cable news, Republican members of Congress made certain to communicate that funding for the Department of Homeland Security would not be put at risk.

Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN that the agency would absolutely be funded because “responsible individuals like myself have no desire to shut down this department. It’s too important to the national security interest of the United States.” Speaker John Boehner also insisted that DHS funding will not be imperiled: “I don't believe that the funding of the department is in fact at risk.” He was joined by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who said that Congress will absolutely get the Department of Homeland Security the funding it needs.

And then, immediately after assuring everyone that DHS would be funded, Republicans in Congress implemented a legislative strategy that will not result in DHS being funded.

On Friday afternoon, House Republicans unveiled their plan to use DHS appropriations to block President Obama’s executive actions on deportation relief. The New York Times laid out the details:

The legislation, which would fund the Department of Homeland Security through the fiscal year, would prevent the president from carrying out his recent executive action on immigration and taking any future such action. It would also undo the protected status that Mr. Obama bestowed in 2012 on the so-called Dreamers – the young people whose parents brought them to the United States illegally when they were children.

This goes way beyond the fight that was originally envisioned when Congress passed the “Cromnibus” appropriations bill in the lame-duck session, which extended DHS funding only through the end of February. The thinking from GOP leaders then was that they’d get the government funded and avoid another shutdown, and at the same time try and appease angry conservatives by telling them they’d have more leverage in an appropriations fight over Obama’s immigration orders if they waited until the GOP controlled all of Congress. (That didn’t work; conservatives in the House voted en masse against the Cromnibus, which passed only with the help of Democrats.)

Now the leadership is expanding the immigration fight to include the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which, as the Times noted, shields DREAM Act-eligible undocumented immigrants from deportation. And the reason they’ve expanded the fight is pretty clear – they want support from the hardline conservatives who opposed them on the Cromnibus. Boehner has apparently learned his lesson after last summer’s embarrassing fight over the border crisis, in which the nativists in his caucus abandoned him for not taking a tough enough stance on immigration. The thing that finally brought those conservatives back into the tent? Legislation to end DACA.

The hardliners are already celebrating this as a victory, which means that the bill will in all likelihood sail to passage in the House. And that means the GOP will once again be affirming that the party’s position on immigration reform is to deport as many people as is humanly possible. Once it passes the House though, it faces one of two certain deaths. The first could come at the hands of the Democratic Senate minority, which may elect to filibuster the House-passed bill. Mitch McConnell needs six Democratic defectors to overcome any filibuster, and he’s not likely to get them.

But even if he were to get those Democratic votes, or if Harry Reid chooses not to filibuster, Obama’s veto pen will strike the legislation down and we’ll be right back to where we started.

And that’s where things get thorny for the Republicans. They’re not going to get any funding bill passed so long as they attach language undermining the president’s immigration actions. If the leadership backs down on DACA or anywhere else, they’ll come under fire from the hardliners for capitulating to the president. The way DHS will be funded is the same way the Cromnibus passed – with Democrats and non-suicidal Republicans agreeing to pass a clean appropriations bill.

And the Republicans are hemmed in by their own statements on the funding of DHS. They can and will blame Obama and Harry Reid, but they’re in control of Congress, and the department’s funding – which they’ve said is necessary and will absolutely happen – is their responsibility. And if a shutdown happens, the Republicans will be blamed for it, just like they were blamed for the last shutdown. “We can’t put the security of country at risk,” Rep. Peter King told the New York Daily News. They absolutely can – what remains to be seen is whether they’re self-destructive enough to actually do it.

By Simon Maloy

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