GOP's self-made disaster: Senate Repubs break with House on immigration & DHS funding

House Republicans are ready to defund DHS to block Obama's immigration action, but some GOP senators are wary

Published January 14, 2015 3:50PM (EST)

                              (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)
(AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

At some point today, Republicans in the House of Representatives will very likely pass a bill that appropriates about $40 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, enough to fund the agency for most of the rest of the year. In addition to funding DHS, that bill will also defund President Obama’s executive action from November shielding certain groups of undocumented immigrants for deportation, and strip funding for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “Our goal here is to fund the Department of Homeland Security,” Speaker John Boehner told reporters. “And our second goal is to stop the president's executive overreach.”

It’s nice to have goals, something to work towards, but by linking these two goals together in the same piece of legislation, Boehner is guaranteeing that neither will be achieved. The insurmountable obstacle facing Boehner and his cohorts in the House is, of course, the president. The White House has already made clear that Obama will veto any legislation that attempts to defund his immigration actions, and this particular bill goes way farther in that respect than most people had expected. Its chances of becoming law are precisely zero.

But Obama may not even get the chance to veto it. First the legislation has to get through the Senate, where it faces the threat of a Democratic filibuster. But even if Harry Reid were to pass on mounting a procedural challenge, there are a number of Republican senators showing some public discomfort with the House GOP’s strategy of linking funding for DHS to the fight over Obama’s immigration actions.

Their reasons for uneasiness vary, depending the Senator. Lindsey Graham, for example, lives in constant paralyzing fear of terrorism, and is disinclined to support a legislative strategy that imperils funding for DHS. On Monday’s edition of CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Wolf Blitzer asked Graham if he wants “the Department of Homeland Security budget to be held hostage to the president's executive order on immigration.” Graham said no:

GRAHAM: I don't mind fighting the part of the budget that implements the executive order, but to my Republican colleagues, we're playing with fire here. We need a robust Homeland Security budget now.

Then there’s Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois. A Republican in a blue state who’s up for reelection in 2016, Kirk has to be sensitive to the politics of this particular fight. What he sees is a scenario in which Republicans have set themselves up to be blamed for threatening to defund the government agency tasked with handling national security, all in the pursuit of undoing a policy that is popular with Latinos (12 percent of the Illinois electorate in the last presidential year, and overwhelmingly Democratic). As such, he rightly spies danger ahead for the GOP. “I think the defunding action leads us to a potential government shutdown scenario,” Kirk told Politico last week, “which is a self-inflicted political wound for Republicans.”

Finally, we have Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who seems like he could support the House bill, but he’s very concerned that the Republican Party will come off looking like a bunch of anti-immigrant nativists – a concern informed by the many, many times that has happened in the recent past. Nevada also has a large and growing Latino population, so Heller’s a bit wary. “I’m a little leery about it,” Heller told Politico. “I just want to be very, very careful that we do it in the right manner, and we don’t do it in a way that is offensive.”

And even if there are a few Republican defections on the DHS funding bill, there’s little chance that red state Democrats would jump in to side with the GOP against the White House. Both Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp were sharply critical of Obama for taking executive action last November, but they’ve both signaled that they won’t support a DHS funding bill that is tied to an effort to defund those actions. “I’m not looking for a political fight. I’m looking to solve a problem,” Heitkamp said.

All of this just underscores the point that the House bill is a dead man walking. Every path to package is blocked, and everyone knows it:

For now, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate say they will not use the immigration bill to shut down DHS. The department will be funded by Feb. 28, one way or another, they say.

"At the end of the day we're going to fund the department, obviously," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at a press conference last week, but did not get into specifics.

The only real question is how much political grief Republicans are willing to chance in pursuit of symbolic votes on an issue that already gives them recurring headaches. At least a few members of the GOP recognize the risk they’re running.

By Simon Maloy

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