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Impasse on Funding for Homeland Security Is Looming in Congress

11 Feb

WASHINGTON — With a little over two weeks until the Department of Homeland Security runs out of money, Republican leaders in Congress publicly announced Tuesday what had become a grim, if private, truth in the Capitol — they are at an impasse, with no easy way out.

“I think it’s clearly stuck in the Senate,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader. “We can’t get on it, we can’t offer amendments to it. And the next step is obviously up to the House.”

Senate Republicans have failed three times so far to pass a bill to finance the department, which runs out of money on Feb. 27, in what has become a larger proxy fight over President Obama’s immigration policies.

The House last month passed a bill to the pay for department operations, but the legislation included provisions that would have gutted the president’s executive actions on immigration, rolling back legal protections for as many as five million undocumented immigrants, including children.

Senate Democrats, united against anything other than a “clean” spending bill, filibustered to prevent Republicans from taking up the legislation — a maneuver they decried when they were in the minority — and Mr. Obama has promised to veto any bill that undoes his executive actions.

The high-stakes gamesmanship, however, is not just between Republicans and Democrats, but also between Senate and House Republicans, with leaders in each chamber suggesting that the other deliver a solution. “The House has passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, and block the President’s unilateral executive action on immigration,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner. “Now, the pressure is on Senate Democrats who claim to oppose the president’s action, but are filibustering a bill to stop it.”

Mr. Boehner offered a similar assessment last week, with some sly encouragement for Mr. McConnell: “God bless him and good luck,” Mr. Boehner said. “He’s got a tough job over there. I’ve got a tough job over here.”

House Republicans have not started working on an alternative, according to House leadership aides, and are unlikely to do so until there is at least some signal that it would have a chance to make it through the Senate.

And so, with just 17 days until the agency runs out of money, and despite many closed-door meetings and private conversations, Senate Republicans are, indeed, stuck. On Tuesday, one after another offered a stream of somber analysis on how to prevent a shutdown of the homeland security agency.

“We’re trying,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 ranking Senate Republican. “We’ve done the best we can, but at some point the arithmetic is the reality.”

“I wish I had a good sense about that,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a member of Republican leadership. “I think it’s a work in progress.”

And from Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona: “We’ve brought it up, what, three times now and the same result, so I just don’t know what else we’re supposed to do over here,” he said. “All we can do is say we tried, and the House will have to pass something else.”

One option being considered is another short-term funding measure, which could push the confrontation back a few months, or even until the end of the fiscal year. But Senate Democrats on Tuesday pushed back on a temporary fix, with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, calling it a “very, very bad” option.

“It would eliminate almost a billion dollars of funding that would go directly to the states,” Mr. Reid said. “It’s not good for protecting our homeland.”

Republicans had a different version of who should own the blame. “If there’s a shutdown, it wouldn’t be because of us,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah. “The Democrats are filibustering it. I don’t know how we get blamed for that this time.”

Despite the uncertainty, Republicans also said that they would not allow even a partial government shutdown. “I have no doubt the Department of Homeland Security will be funded,” Mr. Cornyn said.

But as for exactly how, the answer Tuesday still seemed to be “I don’t know” — a variation of which was offered by more than half a dozen Senate Republicans.

“I don’t know,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, shaking her head. “I truly don’t know.”