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Charlie Hebdo attack: Will it undercut Republican bid to hold DHS budget hostage?

The GOP bid to block Department of Homeland Security spending over a relatively minor dispute on immigration policy has always seemed doubtful. Now the plan makes even less sense.

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    Pens and pencils lay in a circle around 'I am Charlie' posters and other tributes in Trafalgar Square, London, on Friday.
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As part of the budget deal that ended the lame duck session of the 113th Congress, the House and Senate left unresolved the budget of the Department of Homeland Security, authorizing funding for the department only through the end of February.This was done, obviously, in response to the president’s executive action on immigration that extended deportation relief to an estimated 5 million more people beyond those already covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Many Republicans contend that they will attempt to “defund” the program or otherwise attempt to find some way to change the law to prevent the changes from going through, but the president and Senate Democrats have already vowed to block any such efforts. Additionally, the fact that the office that would process the application for deferral from deportation is largely self-funding makes it unclear just exactly what it is that Republicans can do that would stop the president’s program from going forward. Given that DHS includes the budgets for a wide segment of the intelligence and counterterrorism community, not to mention Secret Service, the Border Patrol, and other segments of law enforcement, the idea that Republicans would really be willing to hold the entire DHS budget hostage over a relatively minor dispute on immigration policy has always seemed doubtful. Now, with the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the plan seems to make even less sense:

It took less than six hours for a terror attack in Paris to trigger a budget fight in Washington.

Republicans had seen an upcoming battle over funding for the Department of Homeland Security – which, in addition to its anti-terrorism duties, also enforces immigration laws – as an opportunity to force a confrontation with President Barack Obama over his move to limit deportations. House leaders are set to unveil the bill re-igniting that fight Friday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told CNN after the Paris attack Wednesday that the party should rethink those plans – or at least make sure they’re narrowly tailored.

“I hope that we could challenge the executive action of the President in a mature fashion,” he said. “I’ve never been for shutting down Homeland Security.”

The Homeland Security Department’s funding is due to expire Feb. 27 – a date chosen by Republicans in December, as they hashed out a deal to keep the rest of the government up and running through much of 2015, specifically to force Obama into a confrontation over immigration.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday that the department needs to be funded through an appropriations bill – not the sort of continuing resolution Congress has used in recent years to keep agencies afloat.

He said right now, priorities like the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, border security efforts and pay increases for the agency’s employees are all being shorted.

“We can’t continue to function through a continuing resolution. That poses a real risk to homeland security,” he said in an interview with CNN.

Speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Wednesday night, Johnson added that the fight over Obama’s executive action on immigration that has bogged down DHS funding in political controversy “doesn’t really make any sense,” because it’s impossible to defund the action Obama took to delay deportations and prioritize searches at the border.

The President has said he’d veto any DHS funding bill that attempted to roll back his immigration move, Johnson said, and he urged lawmakers against “playing political football with the budget of the homeland security capability of this nation.”

“There are things that need to be funded — new starts, new funding for border security, counterterrorism, the Secret Service, that cannot wait much longer,” Johnson said.

“For the homeland security of this nation, we need an appropriations bill and we need it soon,” he added.

He also said had spoken that morning to House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican, about his concerns and expressed confidence they would finally come to an agreement on funding the department.

“[McCaul] shares my concern,” he said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, agreed with Graham, telling CNN: “I think we have to rifle shot these things, rather than meat axe. And so, we’ll be talking about best ways to address it without shutting down the government.”

Rep. Peter King, meanwhile, said the Paris attack should be a “wake-up call,” and warned conservatives to make sure they don’t harm the department’s broader functions.

“If they want to target immigration to retaliate against the President, that’s fine,” the New York Republican told reporters on the hill. “But we have to make it clear that Homeland Security – at a time we saw this massive attack in Paris – that we can’t be cutting funding or programs which would protect Americans from a terrorist attack.”

Tying the two issues together brings the risk that Republicans could be blamed if the department shuts down – either because Congress can’t agree on a way to fund it, or because Obama vetoes a bill that doesn’t pay for Homeland Security’s immigration-related functions.

Even some strident conservatives said they needed to avoid being seen as putting funding for the entire department at risk.

“I believe we should fully fund DHS and at the same time prevent the president from violating the constitution,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

The GOP took majority control of both the House and Senate on Tuesday, giving them extra leverage to try to undo Obama’s executive action, potentially through the Homeland Security funding bill.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday that those plans haven’t changed.

“There are terrorists around the world who are intent on killing Americans and other freedom loving individuals around the country. I believe that the President’s executive action with regard to immigration are outside of the Constitution and outside of his power and I believe that we can deal with that issue in the Department of Homeland Security bill without jeopardizing the security of our country.”

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers said the terror attacks will not alter the Republicans’ plans on the Homeland Security bill, which he said they will introduce on Friday and vote on it early next week.

The prospects for the GOP’s plan to use the DHS budget to attack the president’s immigration policies were always slim at best, it seems to me. As I noted above, the office that would process the applications themselves is essentially completely self-funded via the fees that applicants for everything from visas and “green cards” to citizenship pay when they are going through the process of applying for changes in immigration status. In order to “defund” that office, Congress would essentially have to shut it down entirely or completely change the way that it has been funded for decades now, which is something that would clearly be unlikely to garner enough support to get through the House and Senate even with majority Republican control. The other option, to essentially take away the executive branch’s authority to defer deportation under appropriate circumstances, would cause the entire immigration hearing process to grind to a halt, and that, too, is something that I doubt many Republicans would want to see and, in any case, something that Democrats would attempt to stop in the Senate and which the president would most assuredly veto, if they failed to do so.

The bigger question, though, has always been whether Republicans really would be willing to engage in a political battle over immigration in a way that would place the budget of the agency responsible for a large segment of the nation’s security and anti-terrorism system. Given their party’s long-standing positions on these issues, including the assertion that President Obama has engaged in policies that put the nation at risk, it occurred to me when this plan was first announced that it was unlikely that the GOP really would follow through on this threat in anything but a symbolic manner designed to toss a bone to the anti-immigrant wing of the party. Now, with terror attacks in just the last two months in Ottawa, Sydney, and Paris, that seem to be showing an increasing level of sophistication along with a decentralization that makes predicting or detecting them beforehand much more difficult, the idea that the GOP is going to take the political risk of being seen as withholding funds from national security seems quite unlikely to me.

Greg Sargent parses out how a showdown would play out:

[T]his doesn’t preclude House Republicans from making a stand. They can pass funding of the department, while attaching a measure that prohibits the use of funding specifically for carrying out Obama’s deportation relief, and claim that they are in fact funding the agency, while it is the President who is imposing the condition. That strategy, in fact, is currently being considered.

Senate Democrats would probably succeed in blocking such a measure, though that’s not assured, and at any rate, Obama can veto it. At that point, conservatives will chant in unison, again and again and again, that Obama would be the one shutting down Homeland Security in this scenario, and pressure from the right on GOP leaders not to fear the politics of this fight will probably be intense.

At that point, we’d find out how far GOP leaders are really willing to take this. Taking them at their word that something will be worked out to fund the agency, one possibly way out for them might be to resort to a strategy they’ve used in previous confrontations. They could hold two separate votes – the first precluding funding for use in carrying out Obama’s policy, which would pass easily, and a second, separate measure cleanly funding DHS (how individual Republicans would vote on this is unclear, but it would pass the House). Dems could block the first and let the second go through. Conservatives, obviously, would angrily denounce this strategy as surrender.

In other words, the Tea Party/anti-immigrant crowd would get their symbolic vote on the president’s policy but, in the end, the agency will be fully funded and the GOP will have to find some other way to challenge the president’s actions. In the end, while we may see an initial confrontation and maybe even a presidential veto, this is how I expect to see things play out. It was the most likely outcome long before Wednesday, but Wednesday’s attack pretty much makes it a certainty.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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