Congress Takes Vacation Without Homeland Security Solution

Congress Takes Vacation Without Homeland Security Solution
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With the Feb. 27 deadline to fund the Department of Homeland Security looming and no clear path forward on Capitol Hill, Congress is taking a break.

The House and Senate will be off next week, with members back in their districts to fundraise and meet with constituents. When they return 10 days from now, there will be just four days left to find common ground or risk cutting off funding for DHS.

The debate has consumed both sides of Capitol Hill in recent weeks, creating sharp partisan divides as well as splintering GOP House and Senate leadership. The lower chamber passed a bill a month ago funding homeland security with amendments halting President Obama’s executive action to delay deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants. Since then, House leaders have been adamant that their role in this debate is completed.

In a press conference Thursday, Speaker John Boehner was asked again and again about the DHS fight. Each time, he said the House has done its job.

“I’m gonna start laughing. The House has passed its bill,” Boehner said. “We funded the Department of Homeland Security. And we stopped the president with regard to his executive actions. It’s real clear. It’s time for Senate Democrats to get into the game, get on the bill and if they don’t like what we’ve done, they can amend it. Simple as that.”

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise reiterated this position Thursday night in an op-ed for USA Today.

“It's time for Senate Democrats to stop playing partisan politics with our national security and proceed to the House-passed bill,” Scalise wrote. “If there is something they don't like in the bill, the legislative process allows them to file an amendment and fight for their proposed change.”

Senate Republicans, however, have made it clear this week that it’s wishful thinking to expect the House-passed bill to move forward in the upper chamber. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the measure up three times last week, and each time Democrats filibustered it.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that Republicans have “painted themselves into a corner” on the fight to fund DHS.

“I do think that it raises questions about whether or not Republicans are prepared to assume the responsibility that the American people have given them to run the United States Congress,” Earnest said.

Earlier this week, McConnell said it’s clear the Senate is “stuck” and can’t move forward on this version of the funding bill. Scalise met with Senate Republicans on Wednesday in an effort to bridge the gap between the two chambers. His Senate counterpart, Majority Whip John Cornyn, said after the meeting that “both of us have our own math challenges” in terms of finding votes.

“The House has acted appropriately, passed a $40 billion appropriation bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, and Democrats won’t even get on it to try to strip out the parts that they don’t like,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said if Democrats voted to debate the bill but were unsatisfied with the outcome, they could still block it after the debate process. Asked if he saw a path forward, he replied, “I’m unaware of one at the present.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are holding firm against anything but a “clean” DHS bill -- one that lacks immigration amendments -- and are using the fight as an opportunity to criticize the way the new Republican majority is running the Senate.

“It was so obvious from the beginning that this would fail and I guess they thought we’d crack,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third ranking Democrat in the chamber. “But you can’t come up with a strategy that was devised by a Ted Cruz and expect any Democrats to embrace it, go along with it, accommodate it.”

House Democrats have been on a similar page this week, calling continually for Boehner and other Republican leaders to take up a clean bill. All funding bills must originate in the House, which means the Senate cannot take up DHS legislation that doesn’t start there.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and around a dozen Democrats gathered on the steps of the Capitol Friday morning, despite frigid temperatures and a strong wind, to once again criticize Republicans for their stance.

“It is bitterly cold out here, but if you want some hot air, you go inside and listen to these Republicans talk about how they’re the party of national security and homeland security,” Rep. Steve Israel said. “That’s their talk, but their inaction means they are flirting with literal disaster. This is a reckless Republican strategy that flirts with literal homeland security disaster.”

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said all 188 Democrats have signed on to a clean DHS bill, and it would take only a small number of Republican votes to pass it. That strategy, however, is extremely unlikely to move forward.

 Asked how long this back-and-forth can continue, Cornyn said, “We’ve got until the 27th of February, we’ve got plenty of time.”

But with the guarantee of nothing happening in the next 10 days while Congress is in recess, the time to strike a legislative agreement is running short.   

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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