Next Senate Battle: Immigration Defunding

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By James Arkin, Real Clear Politics

RCPAfter spending the first month of the new Congress debating and voting on the Keystone XL pipeline, the Senate is poised to take up its next priority: funding the Department of Homeland Security – with provisions to defund President Obama’s 2013 order to delay deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

The Senate will vote Tuesday afternoon on a bill to fully fund DHS through the end of this fiscal year in September, including amendments to thwart President Obama’s immigration action. In a spending deal passed at the end of last year, Homeland Security was only funded through Feb. 27, giving congressional Republicans a chance to use the funding as a way to fight Obama’s immigration action.

A DHS funding bill passed the House nearly three weeks ago with overwhelming support among GOP lawmakers, while only two Democrats voted for the measure. The $40 billion bill would finance homeland security through September while also defunding both Obama’s immigration action from last year and the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA. The program gives temporary deportation protection to more than 500,000 qualifying young people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday on the Senate floor that the debate over DHS funding amounts to a referendum on Obama’s immigration action, which most Republicans view as unlawful and beyond his scope of power.

“The House-passed bill we’ll consider would do two things: fund the Department of Homeland Security and rein in executive overreach,” McConnell said. “That’s it. It’s simple. And there’s no reason for Democrats to block it.”

Democrats, on the other hand, have chastised Republicans for using the funding bill as a way to attack Obama’s immigration moves. In a press conference last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said Republicans “dislike Dreamers more than they dislike ISIS,” a line Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid repeated on the Senate floor Monday.

Democrats have indicated that they will filibuster the DHS funding because of the immigration amendments, and it’s unlikely to reach the 60 votes it would need to clear that procedural hurdle.

“We’re not going to play games on amendments on immigration when our security is at stake,” Schumer said. “We have a pretty clear and unified stand in our caucus: pass the DHS bill, debate immigration a separate time.”

Republicans in the Senate have mostly been quiet on what will happen if the bill doesn’t pass the cloture vote. A House GOP aide said they are waiting to see what happens with the Senate bill Tuesday, calling it premature to play out what will happen next for DHS before that vote takes place. But the aide said that if the bill fails to pass the Senate, that doesn’t mean the House wouldn’t continue to try to use the DHS funding to take on Obama’s executive action.

“I think we are going to try to go after the president’s executive amnesty through any means possible, and that includes the DHS funding bill,” the aide said. “Just because it doesn’t happen this first time doesn’t mean we’re just going to forget about that and try a different path.”

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said, “At this point, the House has done its work. We’re waiting to see what the Senate does.”

Reid – who returned to the Senate floor Monday for the first time since he severely injured his face while he was exercising in early January – said the Senate would ultimately wind up with a “clean” DHS bill, one without immigration amendments.

“We need to get that done and sent to the president in a clean fashion,” Reid said. “If my Republican colleagues have some problem with something the president has done, on immigration for example, hit it head on. Don’t hide behind homeland security.”

The debate over DHS funding was a major talking point during the rollout of Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget, which was sent to Congress Monday morning. After releasing the budget, Obama gave a speech at the Department of Homeland Security talking about his 2016 proposal, but also slamming Republicans for including immigration in their DHS funding bill. Obama has threatened to veto any DHS funding legislation that includes amendments on his immigration actions.

“If Republicans let homeland security funding expire, it’s the end to any new initiatives in the event that a new threat emerges,” Obama said. “It’s the end of grants to states and cities that improve local law enforcement and keep our communities safe. The men and women of America’s homeland security apparatus do important work to protect us, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be playing politics with that.”

Amidst the fight over Obama’s executive actions, the White House budget took aim at Republicans on immigration, proposing $1 billion in economic aid in Central America as a means to improve living conditions in certain countries there. The budget also highlighted that immigration reform measures passed in the Senate in 2013 would reduce the deficit by $160 billion in the first decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That comprehensive immigration reform, however, wasn’t taken up by the House and won’t get anywhere in the new Republican Congress, which is what prompted Obama to use executive action on immigration last year.

In his speech Monday, Obama highlighted that more than 100,000 DHS employees would lose paychecks if the department isn’t funded by the end of the month.

“These Americans aren’t just working to keep us safe — they have to take care of their own families,” Obama said. “The notion that they would get caught up in a disagreement around policy that has nothing to do with them makes no sense.”

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