Democrats Fear an Ambush on the Senate Floor

To prevent a DHS shutdown, Democrats have to trust that Ted Cruz and other Republicans won't betray them or hold up the whole process.

Democrats are worried about an ambush.

With less than three days left before the Homeland Security Department shutdown, Senate Democrats have accepted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's offer. But they're exceedingly wary of how vulnerable such a move will make them.

After huddling with their members on Wednesday, Democratic leadership announced they would end their two-month filibuster of the DHS funding bill and move forward with clean legislation in a cloture vote. That motion was approved 98-2 Wednesday afternoon, with only GOP Sens. Jeff Sessions and James Inhofe opposed, setting up a final vote to fund DHS later this week or early next week. The deadline to fund the department is midnight Friday, meaning a continuing resolution of a few days may be necessary to give both chambers more time to finish their work.

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure it passes by an overwhelming vote. I think virtually every Democrat will vote for that," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Wednesday.

The move comes just 24 hours after McConnell agreed to remove provisions defunding President Obama's executive action on immigration from the DHS bill and vote on them separately. McConnell had said he would schedule a vote on the immigration measure, sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, on Friday, but if votes on the DHS bill drag on, the Collins measure will be bumped back, with a cloture vote following DHS passage.

Sen. Chuck Schumer doubled down on Reid's promise not to go to conference on the funding bill, saying that House Speaker John Boehner had a choice to make.

Boehner, Schumer said, "knows he has a tiger by the tail in terms of the members of his caucus who are so intent on undoing the president's orders on immigration that they are willing to shut down the government, but it is a time for courage."

Democratic leaders said Tuesday that the majority of their members would not agree to move forward with the Collins bill until the DHS funding had passed the House as well. Reid said it would be "way premature" to get onto the Collins bill and begin what he termed a "many-weeks-long debate" on immigration before a DHS funding bill has made its way to Obama's desk.

Democrats worry that if House Republicans make changes to the DHS funding bill and send it back to the Senate, an immigration vote could take valuable floor time, making it difficult to finish the DHS funding process before the clock runs out.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart accused Democrats of moving of the goalposts and said the Senate would proceed with the Collins bill no matter where DHS funding stands in the House.

McConnell first offered Senate Democrats a clean bill on Tuesday to fund DHS through October. First, Democrats asked for assurances from Boehner that the bill can pass the House. But it became increasingly clear that that wasn't going to happen.

The real concern among Democrats is that Sen. Ted Cruz or Jeff Sessions or another immigration hard-liner will force McConnell to stab them in the back. But Cruz said Wednesday that Democrats can't blame him for their trepidations; he won't delay passage of the bill.

Democrats met Wednesday for a full conference luncheon to discuss their options. In joining the Republican leadership and agreeing to move forward with a clean bill, Democrats fear that conservatives could hold up the legislation far past the deadline, shutting down DHS or, worse, could add even more egregious amendments. Once Democrats agree to get on the bill, they'd be powerless to stop such moves.

Asked about worries over extraneous amendments Wednesday, Reid told reporters, "Senator McConnell wouldn't do that. We're beyond that now."

Democrats agreed because they don't have many other options. They could continue to filibuster a clean bill, but after months of asking for one, they would look hypocritical. In pushing a clean bill, Republicans felt they had the upper hand and were unlikely to back down, forcing Democrats to choose between vulnerability and shutting down DHS themselves.

Given that dynamic, Democrats agreed during Wednesday's meeting to move forward with the clean DHS bill, giving Republicans the votes they'll need to pass the measure, despite their misgivings.

Even with Democrats on board, with Cruz, Sessions, and others raising alarm bells about a clean bill, the process could be lengthy and bloody. Although all 44 Democrats and both independents will vote for cloture, any single Republican member could hold up the whole process through at least Sunday (24 hours after DHS funding expires) and potentially as late as Tuesday.

Now that Democrats have agreed to get on the bill, the fate of the legislation is out of their hands. Fifty-one votes, all Republicans, will be all it takes to add new amendments. McConnell has promised Democrats a clean bill, but the minority is wary of what the rest of his conference will do. With conservative blogs railing at McConnell over the deal, Sessions overtly criticizing the leader's strategy, and some of the conference's members planning to meet with the party's most vocal activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference later this week, Democrats worry that McConnell's resolve could crumble.

After six straight years in the majority, Democrats aren't used to being this vulnerable. But it appears they're taking a chance on McConnell regardless.

Lauren Fox contributed to this article