Senate Republican leaders retreated on the homeland security spending fight Friday morning, voting with Democrats to delete provisions that would have stopped President Obama’s deportation amnesty in order to avoid a partial shutdown of the Homeland Security Department at midnight.
But the 66-33 vote only heightens the tension, as House Republicans remain adamant that the president’s amnesty be stopped, and say they’ll pass a short-term spending bill to keep the Homeland Security Department open for a few more weeks in the hope of working out a final agreement.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, say they’re having none of it, insisting that the House GOP drop its objections and accept the Senate’s bill as-is.
“It must pass the Senate bill. We will not go to conference,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said, shortly before he led the Senate in passing the “clean” spending bill that funds the Homeland Security Department through the rest of fiscal year 2015.
Without an agreement by midnight, the Homeland Security Department will go into a partial shutdown. Most employees are deemed “essential” and would continue working, but their pay would be withheld until the impasse is solved. Grants to state and local governments, however, would be halted, and cadets training for the Border Patrol or thousands of other law enforcement jobs in the department’s various agencies would be sent home from academies, too.
The crux of the fight is Mr. Obama’s new amnesty, announced in November, which would grant legal status, work permits and Social Security numbers to as many as 4 million illegal immigrants.
Republicans say the president violated the Constitution in trying to rewrite the law on his own, going around Congress’s back. Mr. Obama defends his actions, saying he’s only using tools previous presidents have claimed, albeit it on an unprecedented scale.
A federal judge in Texas halted Mr. Obama’s amnesty last week, just two days before the first applications were to start rolling in, throwing the program — and the congressional debate — into turmoil.
Mr. Obama has appealed that ruling, feverishly working to begin to accept applications, which would establish the program and make it much tougher to cancel.
Democrats defend Mr. Obama’s moves and urged the GOP to let the court fight play out, accusing Republicans of holding homeland security hostage to a political fight with the president.
Conservative Republicans, though, have insisted their leaders stand firm, arguing that if Mr. Obama is violating the Constitution, Congress has an independent duty to stop him, and the founders intended lawmakers to use their power of the purse to do so.
Senate GOP leaders are trapped in the middle. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed months ago that he would not shut down Homeland Security, which undercut Republicans’ bargaining position from the start.
Mr. McConnell tried to to separate the spending fight and the immigration fight, and minutes after the spending bill cleared, he forced an early test vote on a stand-alone bill to undo Mr. Obama’s amnesty.
But just four Democrats joined the GOP, leaving that two shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
Even if that bill, sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, were to clear Congress it would be vetoed by Mr. Obama, and since it’s not tied to funding, the GOP has little leverage to try to win its position.
Mr. McConnell opened the Senate chamber Friday morning saying that his strategy would allow the Homeland Security Department to remain open while at least putting Senate Democrats on the spot on a tough vote.
“The Collins bill also provides Democrats who led their constituents to believe they’d address executive overreach with a chance to show they were at least a little bit serious,” he said. “Democrats won’t achieve that by filibustering Homeland Security.”