Eager to spare his party political blame for a Homeland Security Department shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday he would attempt to pass a funding bill that is free of provisions targeting President Obama’s immigration policies.
McConnell’s strategy, announced after a closed-door discussion with fellow Senate Republicans, faces an uncertain path with just days before a midnight Friday deadline. Conservatives quickly expressed reservations at what they considered another cave-in by Republican leadership, and Democrats said they were skeptical of whether such a plan could pass the House.
“All eyes are on Speaker [John A.] Boehner,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
The new plan would in effect break the House-passed measure into two bills. McConnell would ask Democrats for help bringing up the original House bill, but then strip out the immigration amendments that Democrats oppose. Separately, the Senate would vote by Friday on a bill blocking the president’s 2014 immigration executive actions to allow nearly 5 million immigrants to apply for protection from deportation. But unlike the House version, the Senate bill would not affect Obama’s 2012 plan deferring deportation for so-called Dreamers.
McConnell presented his plan as the best workable solution.
“The issue before us is this: Do you want to fund the Department of Homeland Security through the end of the fiscal year so we're fully up and running, and capable of dealing with all the threats that we have around the world, including those against us here at home? And would you also like to express your disagreement with the president's overreach last November? This gives us an opportunity to do both.”
Democrats have repeatedly urged McConnell to simply allow a vote on a clean funding bill. Almost the entire Senate Democratic caucus held a news conference earlier Tuesday, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) at one point urged Republicans “to fund our security and not to send a message to Al Shabab that we're just going to shut down Homeland Security,” a reference to a new threat by the Somali terrorist group against the Mall of America in her state.
But after McConnell announced his proposal, Democrats would not commit to cooperating unless Boehner guaranteed a vote in the House on the plan.
“We have to make sure that we get a bill to the president, not that we send a hot potato to Boehner,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “That doesn't do the trick.”
Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, responded: “Senate Democrats need to stop hiding. Will they continue to block funding for the Department of Homeland Security or not?”
For McConnell, who pledged the day after Republicans won back the Senate majority in November that there would be “no government shutdowns” on his watch, the battle over immigration policy is the first major test of his tenure. He held four separate procedural votes in an effort to open debate on the House measure, but Senate Democrats remained united in opposition and deprived Republicans the 60 votes needed.
Conservatives have pushed for a legislative response to the president’s decision to take executive action on immigration, but increasingly Republican lawmakers were reluctant to risk shutting down the government to do so. Senators said this week that the courts offered the best path to preventing them from taking effect.
“It’s such a major victory that we had a judge who put a stay on the president’s ability to actually move ahead,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday. “That’s a victory to me, not a loss, and sometimes it makes a lot of sense to bank victories and move ahead.”
“It’s a way out of a box canyon,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said. “But some don’t see it that way.”
Any votes to pass a clean funding bill would occur just as thousands of conservative activists descend on the Washington area for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the event, said in an interview Tuesday that the activists would likely be “disappointed” if a spending bill was passed without provisions addressing immigration actions.
“Their message is going to be loud and clear, which is, if what the president did was unconstitutional and definitely irresponsible, then why would you give up the power of the purse and fund it,” he said.
But Schlapp reserved judgment on the Republican leadership strategy, saying he believed Boehner and McConnell were committed to “doing the right thing.”
“Here’s the fact: Republicans don’t have 60 votes in the Senate. Even if they did, President Obama is going to veto it,” he said. “We’re going to have this crisis between the president and Congress no matter what happens. The message from activists is: We’re behind you. Keep pushing.”
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