Mitch McConnell Looks to Trap Democrats With a Standalone Immigration Bill

After Democrats blocked funding legislation for the fourth time, the Majority Leader introduced a bill that ditches DHS funding and targets only immigration.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (National Journal)

The Homeland Security Department is catapulting toward a shutdown this weekend as Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over whether funding for the agency should be tied to a broader debate about the president's executive actions that would allow young immigrants and their families to stay in the U.S. without threat of deportation.

With just four days left to find consensus, the Senate voted for a fourth time Monday night on a House-passed bill that fully funded DHS, but rolled back President Obama's orders on immigration. The bill again was blocked. But there may now be early signs of a way forward: After that vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill unrelated to DHS funding that, as McConnell described it, would only block funding for Obama's most recent immigration actions.

"Some Democrats give the impression they want Congress to address the overreach," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "But when they vote, they always seem to have an excuse for supporting actions they once criticized. So I'm going to begin proceedings on targeted legislation that would only address the most recent overreach from November. It isn't tied to DHS funding. It removes their excuse."

The Senate will vote first to defund Obama's executive action, McConnell announced, and deal with funding separately.

Decoupling the two bills puts at least seven senators who caucus with Democrats—who have said they oppose the president's action—on notice. Over the past several weeks, Sens. Joe Donnelly, Al Franken, Heidi Heitkamp, Angus King, Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill, and Mark Warner have argued that the issue should not be part of an appropriations measure. McConnell, they said, was holding the DHS funding hostage.

The plan, as McConnell has laid it out, forces those senators to go on the record either in support of the president's action or against it, without the backdrop of the DHS spending bill to excuse their votes.

Should the plan convince the majority of those senators, McConnell will be able to pass the immigration bill defunding Obama's executive action and then bring up a clean DHS spending bill—which will pass both chambers easily—ahead of Friday night's deadline to fund the department. If it doesn't, he and Republican candidates and operatives around the country will be able to label those Democrats "hypocrites," while leaving GOP leaders with the headache of how to keep DHS open. Or, as freshman Sen. James Lankford tweeted Monday evening: "It appears Senate Dems are more interested in protecting the President's illegal #immigration execution action than protecting the homeland."

But Senate Democrats don't seem inclined to help McConnel proceed with his plan. Unless Democrats agree to move more quickly, under Senate rules the soonest the chamber could have a cloture vote on McConnell's new bill would be Friday, pushing a vote on final passage into early next week -- after DHS has shut down.

"In other words, all Senator McConnell's move tonight allows him to do is force an initial procedural vote on Friday morning on a bill that doesn't fund DHS, with DHS funding set to run out Friday night," said a Senate Democratic aide who requested anonymity to discuss party strategy. "It is unclear how this moves the ball forward."

House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel says a vote on the standalone bill "will highlight the irresponsible hypocrisy of any Senate Democrat who claims to oppose President Obama's executive overreach on immigration, but refuses to vote to stop it."

Heitkamp forecasted Monday night how Democrats like herself could get out of the corner McConnell has put them in. Heitkamp said last December that she was "disappointed" with Obama's executive action, for fear that it "could poison any hope of compromise or bipartisanship in the new Senate before it has even started," particularly on the issue of immigration reform.

Heitkamp is calling on the Senate not to debate the president's action, but to enact comprehensive reform—which would render the executive order unnecessary.

But the order, too, is important. DHS funding must come first, a Heitkamp spokeswoman said Monday. "Sen. Heitkamp believes Congress should vote on a clean bill to fully fund our homeland security to make sure families are protected, and then separately, debate and vote on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, like the Senate did in 2013," spokeswoman Julia Krieger said in an email.

The DHS funding bill has been stuck in the Senate for weeks, but leaders have been reluctant to change course. The funding fight remains a touchstone for conservatives Republicans who are watching McConnell for evidence of whether he is one of them, or a more pragmatic leader who would risk the optics of folding to Democratic demands in order to boost Republicans' image as the responsible governing party.

Some Republicans, however, want leadership to take an exit ramp from the DHS collision course to a short-term continuing resolution that would keep the department open. A CR could be the middle ground for Republicans who are not ready to cede the fight against Obama's immigration orders, but also don't want to be on the hook for furloughing security workers and requiring valuable DHS employees to do their jobs without pay.

"My guess is that ultimately that is where we end up," says Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker says. "I guess a rationale could be put in place, you know you have got this court stay so a short-term extension would give you time to see what happens in that regard."

But some more moderate Republicans like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who have been urging leadership not to tie funding to policy changes on immigration all along, worry that a short-term CR might not be enough to satisfy conservatives.

Democrats are still holding out hope that Republicans will have a last-minute plan to use a Texas judge's injunction of Obama's executive action as an excuse to pass a fully funded and clean CR.

"I think our Republican friends are in a perfect position right now with a court order and the president said he would back down and wait until the judge rules," says Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. "That is a perfect position to be in."

As McConnell weighs his options, the White House is prepared to use the bully pulpit to spin a potential shutdown in its favor. While Republicans blame Democratic obstruction from the floor of the Senate, Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson appeared on the Sunday shows and held a press conference Monday preparing Americans for a doomsday scenario. Adding pressure, he issued a warning to local law enforcement agencies to be vigilant about American mall security after the terrorist group Al-Shabaab released a video calling for extremists to target American shopping centers.

"In these challenging times in particular, it is most unfortunate that there is even a possibility of a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security," Johnson said during a press conference Monday where he stood with DHS employees to urge Congress to pass a funding bill immediately. "That is not good for the homeland security of this nation, it is not good for public safety."

While some Republicans have dismissed the seriousness of a shutdown and called attention to the fact that roughly 80 percent of DHS employees would still be on the job, Johnson pointed out Monday that they would be working from the airport security lines to the Southern border, without pay.

Johnson said even a continuing resolution injected a "state of uncertainty" into the agency.

"It is like driving across the country with no more than five gallons of gas in your tank, and you don't know when the next gas station is coming."