WASHINGTON (AP) – With hours to spare, the Republican-controlled Congress struggled Friday to approve stopgap funding for the Department of Homeland Security in time to prevent a partial agency shutdown.
Tea party-backed House conservatives loomed as the last obstacle to passage of a three-week measure. Their dissatisfaction has been triggered by a decision to fund the agency that is in charge of border control in addition to its role in fighting terrorism, yet leave in place President Barack Obama’s policy shielding millions of immigrants from the threat of deportation.
“It does not make any difference whether the funding is for three weeks, three months or a full fiscal year. If it’s illegal, it’s illegal,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.
Other conservatives disagreed with that sort of analysis – and said so.
“It’s the best solution that we have available to us right now,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. “Nobody wants to shut down the Department of Homeland Security.”
Across the Capitol, Senate approval of the short-term spending bill was assured, after the final acts played out in the Republicans’ effort to use the measure to wring concessions on immigration from the White House.
A largely symbolic attempt to advance legislation that would repeal Obama’s immigration directive of last fall failed on a vote of 57-42, three short of the 60 required.
That separate proposal was “commonsense legislation that would protect our democracy from the egregious example of executive overreach we saw in November,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who successfully led his rank and file in recent days to a decision to pass Homeland Security legislation without immigration-related provisions.
Much of the Department of Homeland Security was to remain open, even if funding expired at midnight. Airport security checkpoints would remain staffed, immigration agents would be on the job, air marshals would do their work and Coast Guard patrols would sail on. Of the department’s 230,000 employees, an estimated 200,000 would remain at work, either because they are deemed essential, or because their pay comes from fees that are unaffected by congressional spending disputes.
Meanwhile, a federal court order has blocked implementation of Obama’s immigration policies, at least temporarily.
Taken together, the day’s events at the Capitol underscored the difficulty Republicans have had so far this year in translating last fall’s election gains into legislative accomplishment – a step its own leaders say is necessary to establish the party’s credentials as a responsible, governing party.
Republicans gained control of the Senate in last November’s balloting, and emerged with their largest House majority in more than 70 years.
Further demonstrating GOP woes, House GOP leaders abruptly called off a vote on a major education bill that had attracted significant opposition from conservatives as well as Democrats and the White House.
Aides attributed that decision to the need to work separately on rounding up enough votes to pass the measure that would prevent a partial shutdown at Homeland Security.
The day’s developments occurred against a midnight deadline for funding the department, an agency with significant responsibilities in the nation’s fight against terrorism.
An early, 240-183 test vote in the House indicated ample support for the spending bill, but a short while later the House was gaveled into recess while the search went on for support to pass the legislation itself.
“The House must pass this bill in short order to keep the lights on at the Department of Homeland Security in the near term,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky. “Hopefully, this will buy us this additional time that we clearly need.”
Democrats argued against the measure, saying their preference was a longer-term bill to provide funding that carries the department trough the Dept. 30 end of the budget year without attempting to alter immigration policy. It cleared the Senate Friday on a vote of 68-31.
“Give us a vote, Mr. Speaker. Give us a vote. Instead, drip, drip, drip,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader.
Some House Republicans agreed, noting that Senate Democrats had demonstrated their ability to block any challenges to Obama’s immigration policies, and that the president had vowed to veto them in any event.
“The only question is when – tomorrow or in three weeks,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “Some folks just have a harder time facing political reality than others.”
Obama’s first immigration directive, in 2012, lifted the threat of deportation from many immigrants brought to the country illegally as youngsters. Another order last fall applied to millions more who are in the United States unlawfully.