How Republicans Made Their Own Security-Funding Mess

With a fight over immigration, the GOP could blow the first big deadline of its new congressional majority.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

When the GOP jubilantly took control of the Senate last month, it hoped to move past the intra-party squabbles that have hamstrung Republicans on Capitol Hill for the last four years. And yet on the eve of the first major deadline of the 114th Congress, the party finds itself paralyzed by a familiar battle between pragmatists in the Senate and the fiery conservatives of the House.

Funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires on February 27, and Democrats in the Senate are blocking a House-passed spending bill that would overturn the broad executive actions on immigration that President Obama announced late last year. The measure faces a certain presidential veto anyway, and now House and Senate Republicans are locked in an awkward dispute over who should make the next move.

After three failed bids to break a Democratic filibuster, Republicans in the upper chamber want the House to send over another bill, one that either removes the immigration language that Democrats won't support, or which would serve as a stopgap measure to keep the department fully functional while they haggle for another couple months.

So far, House Republicans won't budge. "The House has done its job," Speaker John Boehner said at a Thursday press conference, a mantra he repeated about a dozen times during a 10-minute briefing. The speaker gamely tried to blame Democrats for the impasse, but it was a difficult argument to make, given that even had they allowed the bill to pass, it would never survive a veto. The situation has become so desperate that a few House conservatives have even called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to change the filibuster rules to allow the bill to pass. That position would have been utterly unthinkable back just 15 months ago, when Harry Reid engineered a rules change on presidential nominations and the GOP called him a dictator. One hardliner, Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, was quoted in The New York Times accusing McConnell of "engaging in a policy of surrender" just six weeks into the GOP Senate majority.

What is most fascinating about the GOP's current quandary is that this is a scenario Boehner and McConnell orchestrated themselves shortly after the November elections. Rather than fight Obama's immigration move immediately, they chose to approve only short-term funding for the department that would implement them, on the grounds that the bicameral GOP congressional majority would have more leverage. Yet in the face of a unified Democratic Party, that leverage hasn't materialized. A funding lapse for DHS probably wouldn't be catastrophic, as most of its employees are considered essential; airports wouldn't suddenly close, border crossings would still be staffed, and the Secret Service wouldn't abandon the White House. But all of these employees would have to wait until Congress acted to receive their paychecks, and nobody believes that having tens of thousands of unpaid security agents is a good way to protect the nation from terrorism.

Until Thursday, Republican leaders insisted the department's funding wouldn't expire, and with good reason. Ever since the government shutdown of 2013, it has been an article of faith within the GOP establishment—if not the conservative wing—that a party viewed as hostile to government would never win the PR battle when federal funding is allowed to expire. "If funding for the Department of Homeland Security lapses, Washington Democrats will bear the responsibility," Boehner warned Thursday, in the first real indication that Congress might actually miss the deadline. It happens to be the same message Boehner offered just before the federal government closed its doors for two weeks in September 2013. After it was all over, of course, the speaker admitted to Jay Leno that Republicans were to blame.

There's reason to believe the politics of a partial DHS shutdown would be just as bad for Republicans. While the 2013 confrontation centered on the unpopular healthcare law, voters likely will have little patience for a political dispute that, in any way, jeopardizes the nation's security. The GOP's aggressive move to reverse Obama's 2012 move to shield so-called Dreamers from deportation—in addition to his more recent actions affecting adult immigrants—could set back the party's efforts to attract Hispanic voters. And although public opinion is mixed on the president's unilateral immigration overhaul, new research suggests that even registered Republicans support the underlying policies (as long as Obama's name isn't mentioned). Finally, there's the simple matter of effective governance, as opposed to Congress's recent history of governing-by-crisis, something that McConnell had prioritized upon assuming his post last month. (The security funding impasse has already overshadowed the one Republican priority, Keystone legislation, to reach the president's desk in the new Congress.)

While on paper Congress still has more than two weeks to strike a deal, lawmakers are leaving Friday for an 10-day recess and will return just a few days before the deadline. Relegated to the sidelines, Democrats are relishing the spectacle. They seem content to sit back, and demand that Republicans bring up a "clean" DHS funding bill that they say would pass easily. "They’re in a fix. We’ll see how they get themselves out of it," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.

There is still a better-than-even chance that Republicans will resort to a stopgap measure, keeping the Department of Homeland Security open into March. And if nothing else, the episode can help re-set expectations among conservatives about the limits of the new GOP majority. If the GOP failed to retain the lessons of the last government shutdown, it may have to learn them all over again.