DHS shutdown showdown: Will Republicans pay a price?

The GOP never really suffered any repercussions from the 2013 government shutdown. That's why it seems unlikely that voters are going to care about the events of February 2015 when Election Day rolls around next year.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Hal Rogers (R) of Kentucky, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, speaks with reporters in a basement corridor at the Capitol after House Republicans held a closed-door meeting on how to deal with the impasse over the Homeland Security budget, in Washington, Thursday night. GOP lawmakers have been trying to block President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration through the funding for the DHS, which expires Friday night.

With just hours to go before the current funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security expires, it remains unclear exactly how this latest Capitol Hill battle is going to resolve itself. The Senate seems poised to pass bills largely mirroring the plan proposed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell earlier this week, under which Congress would fully fund the department through the end of the current fiscal year while simultaneously passing a separate bill that purports to block the deferred deportation immigration program that President Obama announced in November, known as DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Permanent Residents.)

Obviously, that second piece of legislation will be vetoed by President Obama and it’s already clear that there are not sufficient votes in either chamber of Congress to override that veto. Even if these bills do pass the Senate, it’s unclear what the House of Representatives will do given the fact that many hardcore Republicans have expressed an unwillingness to back down on the bill that they passed earlier this year which attempts to tie DHS funding to restrictions on the DAPA program. If they hold fast to that position, then funding for DHS will expire at the end of the day on Friday and tens of thousands of employees will either be furloughed or forced to work without pay because they are considered “essential” employees.

In the long run, of course, the battle over DHS will be resolved somehow. The government shutdown of October 2013 lasted for two weeks but, in the end, it too came to an end and the same will be true here. Before we get to that point, though, someone will pay a political price, and it certainly looks like it will be the GOP that does so:

Congressional Republicans are so busy this week flirting with a partial government shutdown – their target is the Department of Homeland Security and its 240,000 employees – that they may have missed fresh evidence of how badly out of step with the American public they are on the issue of illegal immigration.

It is precisely that issue that has driven the GOP to the brink of a funding cutoff for DHS, a move that would trigger furloughs for some 30,000 employees; force tens of thousands more to work without pay; freeze grants for law enforcement agencies nationwide; and further debilitate an already demoralized department that includes the Secret Service, Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection.

As it happens, 60 percent of Americans – and roughly equal segments of Republicans, Democrats and independents – oppose the GOP’s tactic of threatening homeland security funding as a means to subvert the Obama administration’s immigration policy [emphasis added]. According to a new CBS News poll, a clear majority thinks the department’s funding “should be kept separate from immigration policy.”

Chris Cillizza contends that the GOP has made several strategic mistakes in the course of this shutdown, and this could end up harming them in the future:

Whether or not Republicans dodge the actual shutdown Friday night – and at this point, it seems to be anyone’s guess – they’ve already hurt themselves politically speaking. No, it’s not a death blow. Not even close. But it does suggest that Republicans’ previously-demonstrated inability to get out of their own way hasn’t disappeared since the party seized total control of Congress.

Simply put: At this moment in history, the more Republicans keep the focus off of them – and their internal disagreements  the better.  The country is primed to agree with them – or, at least, trust them more than Democrats – on virtually every major issue. And, yet the GOP is doing just the opposite.

A new Pew Research Center poll makes this point starkly. Pew asked which party people trusted more to deal with seven issues; on just one – healthcare – did Democrats have a statistically significant edge over Republicans. Republicans had a wide leads on handling the the threat of terrorism, foreign policy and dealing with taxes.

The problem for Republicans is that those edges on issues are almost the exact reverse of how people view the two parties. A majority of Americans believe the GOP is “too extreme”; just one in three see the Republican party as “tolerant and open to all groups of people.”

You can see then why this ongoing fight over funding the Department of Homeland Security is problematic politically for the party. The central fight, at least at the moment, is focused on whether conservatives in the House will concede to allowing separate votes on funding DHS and repealing several of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The parading of Republicans’ most conservative element into the public eye and the trumpeting of the storyline that they continue to control what does or doesn’t happen in Congress puts the focus almost entirely on the GOP’s biggest weaknesses.

And, as an added bonus, the issue being fought over is funding the department charged with keeping the country safe – creating at least the possibility that Republicans’ big lead on that question could be eroded by how the blame game of a shutdown plays out.

Arguments like this are unlikely to be very persuasive to the hard core conservatives that are pushing House and Senate Republicans to hold the line in the DHS funding showdown, however. Many of these people will likely point to the fact that the GOP never really suffered any repercussions from the 2013 government shutdown, and they’d unfortunately be right about that. While polling both during and immediately after the shutdown showed that the GOP in general, and congressional Republicans in particular, were paying a heavy political price for what had happened, it didn’t take very long for those numbers to reverse themselves. To a significant degree, that was due to the fact that the rest of October 2013 and the ensuing months was consumed with stories regarding problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, while much of 2014 ended up being consumed by news of war in Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, and other domestic and foreign political matters that pretty much pushed the memory of the GOP’s overreach in the autumn of 2013 out of the public memory. By the time Election Day came around in November of last year, the political calculus had changed so significantly that the Republicans ended up winning control of the Senate in one of the biggest changes in party control in that body since the end of World War II.

As of today, we’re even further away from the 2016 elections than the October 2013 shutdown was from the midterms. Given that, and the fact that the shutdown doesn’t really seem to have hurt the GOP at all, it’s hard to see how any Republican member of Congress is going to be convinced by Cillizza’s argument. Perhaps there will be a deal made before midnight on Friday, but even if it doesn’t happen, it seems unlikely that the American people are going to care about the events of February 2015 when Election Day rolls around next year.

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