House and Senate GOP Play Chicken Over Homeland Security Funding

McConnell says the Senate is stuck, so it’s ‘up to the House’ on DHS. The House disagrees.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks to reporters with (L-R) Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) after the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol February 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Feb. 10, 2015, 11:11 a.m.

As the deadline to fund the Homeland Security Department nears, House and Senate Republicans agree on one thing: It’s the other chamber’s problem.

After pushing to pass the House’s DHS funding bill three times in recent weeks and not seeing an inch of movement from Democrats, the Senate majority returned to Washington this week without many options. Almost to a member, they now say the onus is on the House to come up with another plan — and on Democrats to avert putting the country in danger.

But House Republicans, as has been the case since they first passed their version of the bill, are refusing to budge.

In their weekly conference meeting Tuesday afternoon, Senate Republicans barely even discussed the issue, according to one member in the room, despite the approaching deadline. The focus instead was on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which members will receive from the White House this week, and health care.

“We’ve had a week on it. We’ve had three cloture votes which have not succeeded. It’s clear we can’t get on the bill,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “We can’t offer amendments to the bill. … So the next move obviously is up to the House.”

House Republicans disagree. Speaker John Boehner has said repeatedly that the House has already acted to fund the Homeland Security Department and that the ball is now in McConnell’s court.

That message did not change from last week. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy hosted all committee chairmen in his office Tuesday afternoon, during which the topic was discussed. But exiting the meeting, relevant chairmen stood firm, saying, with annoyance, that the onus to act is still on the Senate.

“You can do anything you want to up there. They are the Senate, they are all-powerful. They are all-knowing,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers said that House has acted and the Senate should send a bill back to his chamber. Similarly, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said the Senate still has legislative options, including a compromise proposal by GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

“We don’t think the Senate’s done with their job quite yet,” McCaul said. “The Senate has failed in their responsibilities, and that’s unfortunate. We’re still going to continue to push them. We think they have a few additional measures they’re looking at to try to move the ball forward.”

Others in the House, however, are ready to move on. Rep. Charlie Dent, R- Pa., emphasized that with time running out there are really only two options left that could get the votes to pass Congress. If the Senate cannot reach an agreement, the House would be forced to send over either a continuing resolution to keep the department from shutting down or a clean DHS funding bill.

With House and Senate Republicans caught in that game of hot potato, and Senate Democrats refusing to move forward on anything but a clean bill, the word “shutdown” has begun to grace some lips in the Senate Republican Conference.

Members insist that, should they miss the funding deadline, Democrats will earn the blame. “I don’t know how we get blamed for that this time. “¦ Who else could get blamed? We’re not the ones filibustering,” GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said Tuesday.

Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who is up for reelection in blue Illinois in 2016, was more direct. “If they’re cynically trying to restart the government-shutdown battle, they should be blamed directly. “¦ It’s a very dangerous game. If we have a successful terrorist attack — all the dead Americans from that should be laid at the feet of the Democratic caucus,” Kirk said.

To avoid a shutdown, members could pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep the department funded at its current levels while Republicans consider their options on immigration. Democratic leaders called that a “bad” strategy in a press conference Tuesday, but did not rule out supporting a clean, short-term bill. “We much prefer to do full funding,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said.

But with Democrats continuing to filibuster anything but a clean bill, it’s not clear what Republicans would buy themselves with a little extra time. Collins had floated a compromise amendment to narrow the House’s DHS bill to fund the department while defunding President Obama’s executive actions on immigration from 2014 alone (leaving intact his 2012 order concerning the children of illegal immigrants), but Democrats rejected that tactic as well.

Republicans are convinced that Democrats have to cave at some point, but it’s not at all clear that they will. Democrats feel confident that they are on the right side of the issue and that, as Schumer said Tuesday, “the overwhelming majority of the American people” don’t believe that DHS funding should be threatened over immigration.

“I hope that they won’t shut things down. I hope that they will fully fund DHS,” Schumer said. “It’s substantively the wrong thing for them to do, and it’s politically very, very dumb for them to do. And it’s hard to see why they’re doing it.”

Immigration, Senate Democrats say, should be dealt with as a separate issue. And even those members who were critical of the president’s actions on immigration late last year say that they will accept only a clean bill.

But that’s not an option for Senate Republicans at this point, members say. Their hope is that the longer Democrats filibuster the issue — and the closer they get to the Feb. 27 deadline to fund the department — the more pressure they’ll feel to vote for the House funding bill.

“In the end, they have to defend the country. They have sworn the allegiance to do that. They need to live up to their oaths of office,” Kirk said. “In the Democratic mind, politics is everything. I would say to them, politics is not everything. If you don’t have a country to defend, what is the purpose of politics?”

Lauren Fox contributed to this article.
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