They said it would not happen. There would be no more government shutdowns, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate promised when they took control of Congress.
Now it’s quite possible that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will run out of funds at the end of the day Friday, due to an impasse over President Obama’s executive action on immigration in November.
Why did things get to this point, and how might the impasse end?
Q. How is it that DHS could run out of money on Friday?
A. In December, Congress passed a spending bill that fully funded all of the federal government for the year except one agency – DHS, which lawmakers kept going only through Feb. 27. Republicans hoped this short fiscal leash would give them leverage to block the president’s executive immigration action, which they consider an overreach of power. Democrats went along with the DHS deadline because they wanted the rest of the government funded.
In January, the new GOP-controlled Congress started exercising that leverage. House Republicans passed a bill that fully funds DHS. But they attached riders to it that block money for the president’s November action and that also kill his earlier program to defer deportation for certain children of undocumented immigrants, the so-called “Dreamers.” Now that bill is being blocked by Senate Democrats, who object to the “poison pill” riders.
Q. What will happen to DHS if no funding agreement is reached?
A. It will be partially shut down. That is, about 30,000 of its 230,000 employees – 13 percent – will be furloughed. The remaining 87 percent – such as the Coast Guard, border patrol, and Transportation Security Administration agents at airports – will have to show up because they are “essential workers.” But they must work without pay and won’t be reimbursed until the situation is resolved.
Some Republicans maintain this won’t be that big a deal. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson strenuously disagrees. The furloughed employees will strain staffing and affect readiness, whether it’s to deal with terrorist threats or severe winter weather, he said at a press conference Monday.
About 80 percent of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers will be sent home and outstanding payments for disasters won’t be processed. FEMA, border patrol, and customs officers training will be cancelled. Grants to state and local law enforcement will grind to a halt, Secretary Johnson said. Overall, a DHS shutdown would “amount to a serious disruption in our ability to protect the homeland.”
Q. Republicans control both houses of Congress. Why is there an impasse?
A. It’s all about the math – and the difference between the House and Senate. In the GOP-controlled House, the majority rules and that’s that. In the more deliberative Senate, it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Even though Senate Republicans hold 54 of the 100 seats, they can't overcome Democrats who are successfully blocking this bill.
Electoral politics also plays a role. GOP senators from blue states are mindful of the 2016 elections, and some of them, such as Mark Kirk of Illinois, think the Senate should pass a “clean” DHS bill without any poison pills attached.
House Republican seats, on the other hand, are fairly safe, resulting from gerrymandered congressional districts. Those folks can afford to stick to their guns because they won’t be punished by voters. Some of them complain that GOP senators just aren’t fighting hard enough. Earlier this month, they suggested that the GOP just change the rules in the Senate and get rid of the filibuster.
Q. What might a solution look like?
A. On Monday evening, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said he wanted to "get the Senate unstuck" by offering a separate standalone bill to defund Obama's November executive action (though not the Dreamers program).
The move is intended to force Democrats who have complained about the president’s action to go on record with their criticism (unless Democrats filibuster this, too). Presumably, it would also clear the way for vote on a "clean" DHS funding bill, though none has been introduced yet.
Whether House Republicans would accept a clean bill is another question. If hardliners balk, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio would have to look to Democrats for support.
Another option would be to buy more time for a solution by passing a short-term “continuing resolution” that temporarily extends DHS funds based on last year’s budget. Johnson likens this uncertainty to driving across country with five gallons in your tank and not knowing where the next gas station is.
Meanwhile, the courts could come to the rescue – or not. A federal judge recently ruled against the president’s executive action, though the ruling will be appealed. Senators such as John McCain (R) of Arizona say the courts should deal with immigration overreach, while Congress goes on to fund DHS. But the ruling has simply emboldened other Republicans.
Q. The political heart of the matter – who gets blamed for a DHS shutdown?
A. The rhetoric of the past few weeks in Congress has been almost entirely about blame. Republicans are blaming Senate Democrats for being obstructionist by blocking the DHS bill four times. Democrats are pointing fingers at Republicans for taking the DHS bill “hostage” over an unrelated issue.
A CNN/ORC poll has the majority of Americans – 53 percent – blaming Republicans if Congress fails to enact a spending bill in time. A majority also says a shutdown of even a few days would be a crisis or a major problem.
Interestingly, Americans blamed Republicans for the partial government shutdown in 2013 – but a year later, the GOP still gained at the polls.