Feud over Obama's immigration actions holds up Homeland Security funds

Congress standoff threatens operations at Homeland Security Department, with funding set to expire Feb. 28

Senate Democrats blocked a Republican measure that would provide $39.7 billion to the Homeland Security Department, refusing Tuesday to go along with a GOP condition that none of the money be used to implement President Obama's immigration actions to defer deportation for more than 5 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

Though Republicans vowed to bring up the bill for another vote, the standoff threatens operations at Homeland Security, which oversees the nation's immigration agencies and is set to run out of money Feb. 28.

Obama has promised to veto any effort to dismantle his immigration executive actions, which he says he took because Congress failed to act on immigration reform.

With both sides dug in, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson walked the halls of the Capitol on Tuesday trying to persuade lawmakers to not let his department's funding lapse.

"We're in trying times right now, and we need a clean appropriations bill for Homeland Security," the secretary said before joining a Senate Democratic lunch. "I'm here to talk to any senators on both sides of the aisle who are willing to listen to me and engage in a discussion about getting what we need for the budget for Homeland Security for this nation."

Noting that Tuesday's vote came on a day when Islamic State militants released a new video purporting to show the slaying of a Jordanian hostage by burning him alive, Democrats railed against Republicans for what they called political gamesmanship with a federal agency responsible for protecting Americans.

"The notion that we would risk the effectiveness of the department that is charged with preventing terrorism and patrolling our borders, making sure the American people are safe, makes absolutely no sense," Obama said during brief remarks at the White House.

Republicans had hoped to avoid an early budget crisis after taking control of Congress at the start of the year, but internal differences over how to respond to Obama's immigration actions have left the party without a clear road map for its next move.

"Nobody really has a strategy yet, I'm sorry to say," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) singled out his Senate counterparts, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who pushed the party into the current immigration standoff with Obama, to do more to win approval of the measure in their chamber.

"We won this fight in the House. Now, the fight must be won in the United States Senate," Boehner said. "It's time for Sen. Cruz and Sen. Sessions and Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats to stand with the American people and to block the president's actions."

During budget negotiations at the end of last year, Cruz and others lobbied hard to extend Homeland Security funding only through February to give them another chance to stop Obama's immigration actions.

House Republicans, with their expanded majority, easily approved legislation last month to extend Homeland Security funding for the remainder of the fiscal year, but tacked on amendments to defund the Obama's immigration programs.

The key prohibition blocks any of the fees and fines that would be collected from immigrants to be used to pay for Obama's latest plan, announced in the fall, to temporarily defer deportations. But one amendment went a step further, ending funding for his 2012 order that has allowed more than half a million young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, the so-called Dreamers, to temporarily remain here for work or school without fear of deportation.

In the Senate on Tuesday, the 54-seat GOP majority lacked the Democratic support needed to reach the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Even though some Democrats have expressed reservations about Obama's go-it-alone approach on immigration, none were willing to advance the Republican bill. The procedural vote would have been a step toward opening debate on the measure.

The legislation failed to advance, 51 to 48, blocked by all Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada — a state where Latinos make up an active part of the electorate and Dreamers have a particularly strong presence. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) switched his vote to "no" in a procedural step that allows him to quickly call for another vote.

Senate Republican leaders blamed Democrats for refusing to even open debate on the bill, foreclosing any efforts to amend it. Democrats said they'd be happy to debate immigration reform, but not at the expense of holding up the Homeland Security money.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who returned to work bruised and with a bandaged eye while recuperating from an exercise mishap, said Republicans were playing a "national game of chicken."

A possible compromise could be another stopgap measure to extend funding while negotiations continue.

But officials warned that even if Congress agreed to provide temporary funding at current levels, which are about $280 million lower than had already been agreed to under the new funding bill, many Homeland Security projects would fall by the wayside.

Among them are a slew of grants to state and local governments — including new radio systems for 80 public safety agencies in the Los Angeles area and increased security for commuter trains and tunnel systems in New York City, according to Johnson's office.

Rural areas and Republican-led states could similarly see projects shelved, a congressional aide said, including a Coast Guard cutter being built in Mississippi and a new agricultural biodefense center coming in Kansas. Also at stake is $50 million in new funding for the Secret Service to improve White House security and help protect the emerging 2016 presidential candidates.

"Let's get with the program," said an exasperated Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who had negotiated the fiscal 2015 package last year as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee with her Republican counterparts. "The program is to protect America, not to protect a political party and its partisan points on immigration. Our job is to protect the homeland of the United States of America."

Several Republicans have suggested that shutting down Homeland Security wouldn't pose a problem because about 85% of its employees are deemed essential and must show up for work. Although that is correct, the congressional aide said, the employees would be required to work without pay.

In the meantime, applications will begin to be accepted Feb. 18 for Obama's new program for immigrants, an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which provides deportation relief and work permits for those who came to the U.S. illegally before they were 16 years old.

Because Obama's program is largely funded by fees the immigrants will pay as they apply, it will not be halted by the stalemate in Congress.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Twitter: @lisamascaro

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