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Battle over DHS funding: what's at issue, where things stand

Funding for DHS is scheduled to run out later this month. That deadline was set as part of an effort by Republicans to stand up to President Obama's use of executive action to ease US policies toward illegal immigrants.

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    Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas (r.) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015, to discuss the Department of Homeland Security funding bill. From left are Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah, Rep. Chris Stewart (R) of Utah, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R) of Alabama and Cruz.
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It was designed by Republicans as an opportunity to stand up forcefully to President Obama’s use of executive action to ease US policies toward illegal immigrants. But for now at least, a deadline over funding for the Department of Homeland Security doesn't appear to be going as the GOP might have hoped.

What’s the issue?

Funding for DHS is scheduled to run out later this month. That's because last year, as Congress patched together a budget compromise to fund most of the federal government through September, this agency – which includes the US border patrol – was excluded from the deal.

With that move, the goal was to allow a Congress newly under full Republican control to consider how to challenge Mr. Obama on grounds of both executive overreach and abdication of the president’s duty to enforce immigration laws.

However, three times this month in the Senate, Democrats have been able to block the Republican majority from considering the DHS appropriations bill that the House passed.

That essentially means that the House and Senate don’t have a common-ground position from which to go after Obama’s policy, which is designed to temporarily remove the fear of deportation for several million immigrants.

The difficulty was encapsulated in a TV interview Sunday, in which House Speaker John Boehner touted the House-passed bill, which would fund DHS but exclude any money to implement Obama’s executive action.

“The House has acted to fund the department and to stop the president's overreach when it comes to immigration and his executive orders,” Speaker Boehner said on Fox News. “It's time for the Senate to act.”

But interviewer Chris Wallace responded that Senate Republicans lack a filibuster-proof majority, and he quoted Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell:

“It's clear we can't go forward in the Senate,” Senator McConnell said last week. “The next move obviously is up to the House.”

Boehner, on Sunday, disagreed: “If the Senate doesn't like [the House bill], they'll have to produce something that fits their institution.”

It remains to be seen what the Senate will be able to pass. And so suddenly, it looks possible that DHS will face a so-called shutdown for lack of funds.

The department wouldn’t really be shut down. Federal operations that are deemed “essential” – and that would include much of the US border patrol – would continue.

But some operations would indeed grind to a halt – and the debate may then shift, partly, to the question of who’s to blame. Past history with such scenarios suggests that Congress would be blamed more than the president.

Republican efforts to tag Obama or Senate Democrats with responsibility could be difficult if party members look as if they can’t agree among themselves about what to do.

In recent days, the tea party wing of the party has stood in defiance of what some call Obama’s “illegal executive amnesty.” Moderates in the party, meanwhile, have called for compromise in place of a politically damaging standoff.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois says Republicans, having won control of the Senate in last fall’s election, need to show they can get things done – not just take symbolic votes against a Democratic president.

"It’s not livable. It’s not acceptable," Senator Kirk said of a potential shutdown, according to comments quoted by The Hill. "When you’re in the majority, you have to govern. You have to govern responsibly. And shutdowns are not responsible."

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