WASHINGTON (AP) — Three days before a partial Homeland Security shutdown, lawmakers cleared the way Wednesday for Senate passage of legislation to fund the agency without immigration-related provisions opposed by President Barack Obama.
Approval in the Senate would send the issue to the House, where some conservatives derided the plan as a surrender to the White House. Other Republicans predicted it would clear, but Speaker John Boehner declined to say if he would put it to a vote.
"I'm waiting for the Senate to act. The House has done their job," he said at a news conference where he repeatedly sidestepped questions about his plans.
Increasingly, though, it appeared the only alternative to House acceptance of the Senate measure — or perhaps a short-term funding bill — was the partial shutdown of a federal department with major anti-terrorism responsibilities — and the likelihood the GOP would shoulder whatever political blame resulted.
The developments in Congress unfolded as Obama met at the White House with immigration activists before departing for a speech in Florida, where more than 23 percent of the population is of Hispanic descent. One person attending the meeting, Frank Sharry quoted Obama as saying Republicans were engaging in "kabuki" to appease conservatives who adamantly oppose presidential directives that would allow more than 4 million immigrants to remain in the country without threat of deportation even though they came to the country illegally.
Later, in Florida, Obama predicted his administration would win a victory at the appeals court in its bid to overturn a ruling that has blocked his immigration policies from taking effect. "If we don't, we'll take it up from there," he said, apparently referring to an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The president had already arrived in Florida aboard Air Force One when the Senate took the first of several votes that could be required to pass the stand-alone spending bill. The tally was 98-2, reflecting a bipartisan sentiment that it was time to bring the current episode to a close.
The Homeland Security funding legislation has been at the core of a politically charged struggle for weeks in the Senate. Democrats have repeatedly blocked action on the measure, objecting that it included House-passed immigration provisions that the White House opposed.
With the threatened partial shutdown approaching, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., retreated on Tuesday, offering separate votes on two bills. One would provide DHS funding, while the other would repeal Obama's immigration directives issued last year.
Democrats initially said they wouldn't agree unless Boehner signed on to the deal, but after a closed-door meeting, the party's leader gave his consent.
"It's an important step to be able to send to the House of Representatives a bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
Moments later, he and McConnell jointly pledged to pass a funding measure swiftly without the immigration provisions attached. McConnell said he hoped it could be cleared and "sent back to the House this week."
The precise timing of the bill's passage appeared to depend in large measure on the response of some of the Republican Party's most dedicated opponents of easing immigration laws.
Among them, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential presidential contender in 2016, told reporters he saw nothing to be gained from delaying the bill's inevitable passage by a day or so. Another, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, declined to comment.
Across the Capitol, House Republicans met privately to discuss the Senate measure as Boehner marked time, and lawmakers were told to be prepared to spend the weekend in the Capitol to resolve the issue.
Republican Rep. Pete King of New York predicted that a stand-alone spending measure would clear the House if it first passed the Senate. Yet he acknowledged that was not the preferred course of action for most members of the Republican rank and file, and there was ample evidence of that.
Thirty House conservatives sent a letter to Boehner and other top Republican leaders urging them to "stand firm against these unlawful executive actions" by Obama.
One frequent Republican rebel, Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, said Boehner would find himself on "very thin ice" if he relied primarily on Democratic votes to pass a funding bill stripped of provisions to roll back immigration directives that Obama issued in 2012 and last year.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson stepped up his involvement in the debate, too.
He said that without legislation to set new spending levels, there would be no money for new initiatives such as "border security on the southern border." He also said disaster relief payments "would grind to a halt."
Officials have said that more than 85 percent of the agency's workforce — 200,000 out of 230,000 employees— would continue to work even if the funding were not approved because they are deemed essential for the protection of human life and property. That includes front-line workers at the Customs and Border Patrol, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Kerr, Andrew Taylor, Charles Babington, Alan Fram and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.