With money for the Department of Homeland Security set to run out at midnight Friday, Republican leaders in Congress struggled to convince their followers to fund the huge department now and fight President Obama's immigration policies later.
Like most high-stakes showdowns in Washington, this one appears likely to go down to the wire.
The Senate on Thursday moved forward with a compromise plan pushed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). It includes a straightforward bill to fund the department, which the chamber may pass as soon as Friday. The bill would not contain the immigration restrictions that had been attached by House Republicans.
In a nod to conservatives, McConnell has promised a separate vote on immigration policy once the Homeland Security funds have been approved.
The Senate's most conservative members had been forcing the Republican leader to run out the clock with procedural steps that might have delayed passage of the money bill until Sunday. But by Thursday afternoon, they had largely relented.
"I'm not happy," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leader in efforts to stop Obama's immigration policies. "But I'm not interested in delay merely for the sake of delay."
But even if the money clears the Senate, the bill still faces trouble in the House. More than 30 conservative members have called on Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) not to follow the Senate's approach.
House Republican leaders hastily convened a meeting late Thursday evening of rank-and-file members and floated the prospect of a bill to fund the department for three weeks to ensure no disruption in Homeland Security operations while Congress continued to debate.
That stopgap maneuver could allow House Republicans time to devise a response to the Senate compromise. Many conservatives want Boehner to force a conference committee with the Senate where they could again attach immigration provisions.
Democratic leaders showed little patience for that approach, and some Republicans had tired of crisis governing. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said another attempt to use the money bill as a way to stop Obama’s immigration plan would be a “waste of time.”
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is up for reelection in 2016, agreed.
“I think the feeling of most people is, it’s a fight we should have not fought,” Kirk said. “As a governing party, we’ve got to fund DHS and say to the House, ‘Here’s a straw so you can suck it up.’”
Some of the less conservative Republicans in the House also voiced unhappiness. ”I've had it with all this,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) “I've had it with this self-righteous delusional way of the party, which leads us over the cliff.”
Boehner refused Thursday to say what the House would do. Pressed by a reporter for answers, he puckered his lips and made little kissing sounds.
In the past, Boehner has reached across the aisle to secure Democratic votes on major issues when he could not find enough support from his own Republican majority.
But Boehner has been reluctant to compromise in this fight after his leadership was seriously challenged at the start of the new year by rank-and-file conservatives. Some of them view his actions now as a major test.
Republicans fighting Obama's plan to halt the deportation of several million immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally see this battle as the closest conservatives have come to reversing an administration policy since the 16-day government shutdown in 2013.
Conservatives have been heartened by Boehner's hard-line approach as much as they have expressed their disappointment over McConnell's compromise.
Democrats have enjoyed the sight of Republican division. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) lambasted the new GOP-led Congress as "major amateur hour."
In a rare joint news conference Thursday morning, Reid and Pelosi, who have tangled in the past, stood united in their quest for a straightforward bill that would avert a funding crisis.
"It's about time for them to grow up and pass this bill," Pelosi said.
Reid noted that fighters of Islamic State and other such militant groups "appear to have money. Why shouldn't our homeland have the ability to protect itself?"
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Department officials began preparing to furlough several thousand employees and to inform the vast majority of their 230,000 workers -- including those at the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration and the Secret Service -- that they will be expected to show up for work without pay if Congress fails to pass the money bill.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has become almost a fixture on Capitol Hill and was again working the halls Thursday to press the case for approving his department's funds.
The most conservative Republicans in Congress have downplayed the risk of a shutdown, saying government employees will still be required to come to work and protect the nation. Workers also would likely receive back pay once the stalemate is resolved, although that is not guaranteed.
Democrats, though, have noted that even a delayed paycheck will cause harm to many Homeland Security employees.
Johnson criticized those who have suggested that the department's employees could simply work without pay.
"For the working men and women of my department, who need a paycheck to make ends meet for their families, I think that's a very unfortunate statement," he said.