The latest Capitol Hill spending fight, Democrats say, isn't just about the haphazard way in which Congress goes about funding the government. It's about Paris, the Islamic State—even 9/11.
With Republicans seeking to use the Homeland Security Department spending bill to counteract President Obama's orders on immigration, Democrats are trying to turn the tables, accusing the GOP of putting the country in danger with a risky political ploy that could shut down the department when it's needed the most.
After years of watching the GOP brand itself as the party of national security, Democrats see this fight as an opportunity—albeit a temporary one—to put Republicans on the defensive.
"They're willing to shut down the agency that detects, deters, and responds to the threats of our homeland," Rep. Loretta Sanchez said Tuesday at a press conference organized by House Democrats to address the DHS funding fight. "They're putting our homeland security, our entire way of life at risk because they want to separate mothers from their children."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has consistently cited international terrorist attacks as reason to push through the funding bill without the immigration language, saying recent incidents should have changed the GOP's calculus since the first funding spat in December.
"In January, all the world was alarmed at what happened in Paris, and everyone was concerned about homeland security—in the country and, really, throughout the world," Pelosi said at the same presser. "You would think Paris would have given them some additional motivation to pass a clean Homeland Security bill, but not so."
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer had a similar message. "They've chosen to threaten national security by holding our Homeland Security budget hostage," he said.
"We've had three major international attacks since that—in Canada, in France, in Belgium. Three major attacks since that bill. So saying that things are like they were before is not accurate."
Other Democrats went further, saying Republicans have forgotten the lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "What a different mind-set we had after 9/11," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, also taking the stage Tuesday with her Democratic colleagues. "We had a sense of responsibility and overcoming fear."
"If Republicans are serious about border security and homeland security, then they have to demonstrate that with actions, and one of the biggest ways to do that is to fund the agencies that are trying to provide homeland security," Rep. Jim Langevin, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Wednesday. "It's important to note when the effort or the votes don't match the rhetoric."
In reality, more than 85 percent of DHS employees—those deemed "essential" to the agency's mission—would remain on the job even if Congress fails to pass a new funding bill by Feb. 27. Those workers who show up would be denied their pay until a bill finally passed, and no one's arguing that furloughing even the "nonessential" workers is a good idea. But it's unclear that a funding lapse would put the country's security in jeopardy.
Of course, Republicans counter that any funding lapse—and subsequent danger—will be on the heads of Democrats who oppose their bill to protect Obama's policies. "The House has done its duty," said Sen. Jeff Sessions. "It has funded Homeland Security with $40 billion in funding, and it just simply says the president can't take money that was authorized, appropriated to enforce law, to undermine law. If there is any problem with funding Homeland Security, it is a direct result of Democrats' obstruction."
And in the House, Speaker John Boehner and Hill allies are putting the blame on the 46 Senate Democrats who have halted the bill's progress there.
"They should pass the bill, which funds a very vital national security agency but also turns back this blanket amnesty, which is illegal and unconstitutional," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers said. "We think that the vote to bring the bill up on the Senate floor, that motion to proceed, should pass. Anyone who votes against the motion to proceed to fund the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and all of the security agencies that is in that bill, that vote is critical, and I think people will pay attention to it."
Democrats are happy to point out that the party that wants to close the border to immigrants is endangering the agency responsible for doing just that.
"There have been suggestions that we will not fund the Department of Homeland Security—which is responsible for patrolling our borders as well as keeping our air travel safe, as well as patrolling our coasts—there has been talk of not funding that department because of the disagreement on immigration reform," Obama said Wednesday at an event with "Dreamers" at the White House. "There is no logic to that position—particularly for Republicans who claim that they are interested in strong border security. Why would we cut off your nose to spite your face by defunding the very operations that are involved in making sure that we have strong border security? Particularly at a time when we've got real concerns about countering terrorism?"
It's unclear how either side intends to resolve the funding impasse. Republicans have twice tried to break a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, and some think the longer the fight drags on, the more pressure will be brought to bear on red-state Democrats such as Sens. Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly. But if the deadlock holds, Congress has a shrinking, three-week window in which to pass a funding measure or risk political blowback.
Some Republicans think they're still well positioned to extract concessions—if not the ambitious immigration overrides in the current bill—by continuing to force Democrats to take "no" votes on funding bills with companion measures. Others—including Sens. John McCain, Jeff Flake, James Inhofe, and Orrin Hatch—say it's tough to see an endgame in which Republicans are not forced to pass a clean funding bill before they hit the deadline. For the time being, Democrats in both chambers remain united in opposing any DHS bill that rolls back their immigration policy.
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