WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Republicans returned to their districts for a weeklong recess Friday no closer to a solution to keeping the Homeland Security Department funded past this month. And many were beginning to fear they'd have little to show from a standoff with minority Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama over immigration policy.
Indeed, a month after assuming control of the Senate as well as the House, Republicans are finding, to their chagrin, that important things haven't changed.
"I suppose elections have consequences, except in the United States Senate," complained GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who like many House Republicans hoped for more after the party assumed full control of Congress.
"Tell me how it would be different if Harry Reid were still running the place," Mulvaney added, naming the Senate Democratic leader who was booted into the minority in November's midterm elections.
Their party is now setting the floor schedule and calling hearings, but Republicans are six votes short of the 60 needed to advance most legislation, and Senate rules grant numerous rights to the minority party. That means if Democrats remain united, they have the ability to block GOP bills just as they did while in the majority.
And Democrats have been united against House-passed legislation funding the Homeland Security Department through September, the end of the budget year, while also rolling back Obama's executive policies on immigration.
As a result, Congress appears to be at a stalemate on the issue, leaving Republicans with only a few options: Pass a short-term extension of current funding levels, fold and strip the immigration language opposed by Democrats from the bill, or let the Homeland Security Department run out of money when current funding expires Feb. 27.
They're all bad options from the GOP perspective. A short-term extension just pushes the problem to a later date. Removing the immigration language would amount to a bitter admission of defeat after Republicans have spent months accusing Obama of an unconstitutional power grab for limiting deportations for millions in the U.S. illegally and making them eligible for work permits. That's left Republicans staring down the third possibility: a shutdown of the Homeland Security Department.
It's something most say they want to avoid, but on Thursday House Speaker John Boehner refused to rule the possibility out, insisting instead that Senate Democrats should get the blame if it happens.
"If funding for Homeland Security lapses, Washington Democrats are going to bear the responsibility," the Ohio Republican said. "The House has done its job. We've spoken. And now it's up to the Senate to do their job."
Some House conservatives go further, arguing that a shutdown would hardly be calamitous because the large majority of department personnel would be deemed essential and report to work, though most would not get paid until after the shutdown ends.
"Look at the last shutdown — 85 to 90 percent of the personnel from DHS all came to work, and they all got paid" eventually, said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. "As much as both sides don't want that to happen, it is always a possibility."
The last shutdown happened in the fall of 2013 over a failed GOP attempt to uproot Obama's health care law. Republicans got blamed for that one, and some fear they would pay the political price if there's another one, too.
The dispute will resume when lawmakers return to the Capitol Feb. 23 with just a few days left before the funding deadline expires. GOP leaders have announced that the Senate will start the week by taking its fourth procedural vote on the House-passed funding bill. Democrats blocked all three previous attempts to open debate on the measure, and the outcome is unlikely to be any different the fourth time around.
The Capitol Hill drama is unfolding as the Obama administration moves forward unchecked in implementing the new immigration programs. Wednesday will bring the first major opportunity to sign up, when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services begins accepting applications from those eligible for an expanded program granting work permits and deportation deferrals to immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as kids. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a press conference Friday to encourage immigrants to enroll regardless of the political opposition, with members saying that will only make it harder for divided Republicans to undo the program.
"We're going to sign 'em up by the hundreds of thousands," predicted Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. "The more people that are in the program, the harder it is to turn back the clock on justice."
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