Senate Democrats on Monday again stifled a GOP attempt to advance a Homeland Security funding bill that would undercut President Obama's immigration actions, leaving Congress' new GOP majorities in need of a new strategy ahead of a Friday deadline to avoid a department shutdown.
The 47-46 vote Monday was the fourth failed attempt by Senate Republicans to open debate on a House-passed measure providing $39.7 billion for Homeland Security operations on the condition that the new money not be spent to implement Obama's immigration actions -- both a new program to defer deportation for more than 5 million people living in the U.S. illegally and a 2012 program that deferred deportation for 600,000 so-called dreamers. Sixty votes were needed to cut off the Democratic filibuster.
Republicans had tried unsuccessfully during the Presidents Day break last week to turn up political pressure on Senate Democrats who had expressed reservations with Obama's newest policy.
"There are times when we must reach across the aisle in defense of something greater, when party lines dissolve, disagreements fade and what is right must triumph," Virginia's Republican members of Congress wrote to the state's two Democratic senators, Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine on Monday. "The true threat is that any future president will take this precedent and choose which laws they wish to enforce and ignore the will of Congress and the American people."
But Democrats saw little reason to change course, and accused Republicans of playing politics with the nation's security.
"I don't understand what my Republican friends are trying to do here," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, citing a new potential threat to American shopping malls by a Somalia-based terror group.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, during a event with agency workers, warned Monday that 75% to 80% of his workforce would have to come to work without pay while another 30,000 would be forced to stay home until new funds were approved. Such a disruption, he said, would compromise his agency's ability "to stay one step ahead of groups" such as Islamic State.
"On behalf of the men and women up here on this stage, and for homeland security and public safety, we need a fully funded Department of Homeland Security," Johnson said.
In remarks to the nation's governors on Monday, Obama called the standoff the latest example of "manufactured crises and self-inflicted wounds" that have held the nation back for years. A department shutdown, he warned the state leaders, "will have a direct impact on your economy, and it will have a direct impact on America's national security, because their hard work helps to keep us safe."
Fewer than two months into the first all-GOP Congress in eight years, the immigration standoff is forcing party leaders into a decision that may have negative consequences either way.
Conservatives insist on blocking the Homeland Security money unless it includes the immigration-related provisions. If Republican leaders drop that demand and bring up a bill that would fund the department's budget, they risk turning a restive conservative base against them.
If they don't, they risk public anger over a partial government shutdown -- something new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had vowed would not occur.
For the GOP, the timing of the standoff is about as inauspicious as it gets, as thousands of conservative activists are set to attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference just across the Anacostia River from the Capitol later this week.
After the vote, McConnell introduced a new stand-alone measure -- separate from the overall Homeland Security funding bill -- that would block funding for Obama's new immigration actions and leave in place the program for dreamers. It could be the first step in ultimately trying to pass a so-called "clean" funding bill to keep the department running, at least on a short-term basis.
"It's another way to get the Senate unstuck," McConnell said, giving no other hints as to how he would proceed.
Senate Republicans will meet Tuesday to discuss the path forward, as a growing number in the party push to let a court battle over the new policies play out before seeking to address them legislatively.
The Justice Department filed a motion in Texas district court seeking to overturn a preliminary injunction issued last week by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen just as the new immigration programs were about to begin.
Whether such a plan would be acceptable to Republicans, particularly in the House, was unclear. The House does not return to Washington until Tuesday night.
"We have a federal judge now that has declared the executive action unlawful," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN on Monday. "The courts determine whether something is constitutional, and not Congress."
"I've always thought the judicial system was an alternative way to deal with the president's overreach," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate, told reporters. "Now that one court has ruled to put a stay in his executive order, perhaps that frees us to go forward and get the department fully funded."
Asked if the legal fight could give Republicans a way out of the fight, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told reporters, "It could. I don't know if it will."