Congress inches closer to cliff

Republican leaders, racing against the clock to find a tough response to President Barack Obama’s immigration policies, are now left with two messy options: Punt or risk getting blamed for shutting down an agency that fights terrorism.

A punt is looking more likely by the hour.

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On Monday evening, McConnell moved the Senate toward a standalone bill targeting the president’s executive actions, the first step in trying to disentangle the immigration fight from a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security.

Senior Republicans said privately earlier in the day that the party may have no choice now but to fund the agency on a short-term basis. The length of a so-called continuing resolution isn’t clear, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to discuss the matter with GOP senators in a closed-door lunch on Tuesday.

While passing a short-term continuing resolution without restricting Obama on immigration would likely clear the Senate, it faces an uphill climb in the House. It’s up to House Speaker John Boehner and McConnell, both of whom have vowed to avoid any shutdowns in the new GOP Congress, to devise a way out.

“There will be no shutdown,” one top Republican said privately Monday.

The Republicans’ first choice — a bill that would keep the homeland security agency open while blocking Obama’s executive order shielding roughly 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation — stalled again in the Senate on Monday. For the fourth time this month, Senate Democrats filibustered the measure. The vote was 47-46.

But with worries growing over national security preparedness in the event of a shutdown, a growing number of Republicans said the party may have no option other than to extend the department’s funding for several weeks. Though members of both parties don’t want a temporary fix —“I’m not for a short-term CR,” the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said Monday — Republican leaders are unlikely to have a better alternative unless they can convince their rank-and-file to defer to the courts. A Texas district judge recently blocked Obama’s November order, but the administration is appealing.

“We’re in a really strange constitutional spot. That you can’t ignore a president who has exceeded his authority, but neither can you put the nation at risk,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “I don’t think [a shutdown] is going to happen. I think we’ll resolve it. I don’t hear anyone rushing to say: ‘Let’s have a shutdown to prove a point.’”

Like many Republicans, Lankford refused to say whether he would vote for a continuing resolution with no immigration provisions. But he did say a delay was more likely than a shutdown because it would allow time for the GOP’s to continue to fight the immigration order.

After playing down the effects of a funding lapse last week, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is now calling for an end to the stalemate.

“The political impasse on DHS funding must end. Responsible members of both parties must work together to find some way to fund DHS without further delay,” he said Monday.

A range of fall-back proposals continued to be floated on Monday. One would be to tie a short-term budget bill to the outcome of the Texas immigration case.

Meanwhile, a number of outspoken conservatives — such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — are trying to stiffen GOP leaders’ spines, arguing that Democrats will shoulder the blame if the department shuts down. That could mean that even a short-term funding bill would take days to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate, while its prospects in the House would be anything but assured.

Still, the approaching deadline could spur Congress to act, as deadlines typically do with one major exception: the government shutdown over Obamacare in 2013.

The parallels were not lost on Democrats, who spent Monday circulating polls that showed Americans would blame Republicans for a shutdown and that they prefer immigration policy be kept separate from funding the homeland security agency. Democrats are also gleefully highlighting remarks from Republicans questioning GOP leaders’ strategy. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) both warned on Sunday of major political fallout for their party and urged the GOP to place its bets on the legal challenge to Obama’s executive actions.

“The worst possible outcome for this nation is to defund the Department of Homeland Security given the multiple threats we face to our homeland. And I will not be part of that,” Graham said on ABC’s “This Week. “I hope my House colleagues will understand that our best bet is to challenge this in court, that if we don’t fund the Department of Homeland Security, we’ll get blamed as a party.”

But even as Republicans lamented their situation, they also blamed Democrats for refusing to debate a bill. Ever since the Senate minority rejected the House’s proposal from being debated on the floor, Republicans have tried to saddle Senate Democrats’ with responsibility for a potential shutdown.

“If Democrats would quit filibustering and allow us to get on this bill, which fully funds the Department of Homeland Security, we’re [open] to letting them have amendments,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). “Can’t finish the bill if you can’t start it.”

But Hoeven, an appropriator who oversees homeland security spending, also threw cold water on a temporary bill.

“I don’t support going to a CR. I think it would be better to get to a bill like we got and go through the process and offer amendments,” Hoeven said. “But at the end of day, whatever we pass, has to get through the House, too.”

As the congressional standoff barrels to a climax, the Obama administration revved up its messaging machine. Flanked by nearly 30 employees from across the department and the chiefs of FEMA and Customs and Border Patrol, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday up to 80 percent of the department would work without pay in the event of a shutdown, while 30,000 employees would be furloughed, including 80 percent of FEMA.

Though it seems the only way out of a shutdown Johnson decries, he also lambasted a potential short-term funding bill and likened it to “trying to drive across the country with no more than 5 gallons of gas in your tank and you don’t know when the next gas station will appear.”

Jake Sherman contributed to this story.

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