Wednesday, February 25, 2015

DHS: Whole Lotta Hubbub

The National Journal website has a ticker counting down the seconds to a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, when funding for the Department runs out at midnight on Friday, February 27. Counting the October 2013 full government shutdown, if Congress can't reach agreement on some kind of funding package for DHS, this would be second shutdown of the Department in less than 18 months due to legislative brinksmanship.

But while that brinksmanship might make good beltway newspaper copy, in practicality, the shutting down of DHS will have little meaningful impact on the day to day function of the various agencies under the Department's purview. Essential functions, like the TSA folks who screen your person and your packed bags at the airport will all report for duty; likewise the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard. According to the Congressional Research Service, and as reported in the National Journal, 85% of DHS employees continued working during the 2013 shutdown.

The optics on this appear terrible for Republicans, who eight weeks ago were talking a lot about "showing the American people we can govern." Generally speaking, governing would not include the (semi) regular shuttering of entire government departments. And to confirm that past is indeed prologue, while they controlled just one chamber of Congress in 2013, they took the majority of blame for that shutdown. With control of both chambers in 2015, I believe they will take virtually all of the blame this time around; and as Charlie Dent and Lindsay Graham (Republicans from the House and Senate, respectively) have indicated, I am not the only one who feels this way.

So the question remains, if the department will carry on fairly normally, and the polling indicates Republicans will take the lion's share of the blame, why does the path forward on keeping DHS funded seem so murky; why won't the GOP simply decide the juice is not worth the squeeze, pass a clean funding bill, and then move to consider a standalone piece of legislation to undo or dramatically reform the President's December 2014 immigration executive order?

Indications are that the Senate will do just that, probably at the last minute, after spending a full month of floor time to achieve nothing except a very predictable outcome. So predictable in fact that when DHS was left out of the long-term funding agreement passed in December, you didn't have to be Lyndon Johnson to figure out that this was going to happen, and what I mean when I say 'this' is: roughly 8 weeks of progressively high-volume posturing followed by a meek as a mouse agreement to keep DHS funded. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we can count on the Senate to do the right thing, after it has exhausted all other options.           

Which leaves the House. With the Senate perhaps clearing the way for a clean DHS funding bill, Speaker Boehner and his leadership team need to make the decision whether to bring forward a clean bill, and likely pass it with all the Democrats, and moderate Republicans; or do they abide by the Hastert Rule, and decline to bring anything to the House floor that does not have the support of a majority of the majority?

I am not sure how many times John Boehner, an eminently reasonable and results-oriented fellow, who has been known to refer to some in his own caucus as 'knuckledheads,' can roll his caucus and maintain his hold on the Speaker's gavel. But for a huge portion of his caucus, those Republican House members who come from the reddest districts and who will face zero negative push back for a DHS shutdown (but who would get immense push back if they don't take action against Obama's E.O.), there is nothing Boehner can offer to keep them in line and collectively the will force his hand. This will be the paradigm John Boehner faces for at least the next two years, if he can hang on that long.      

Assuming the Senate clears a clean DHS funding bill, Boehner will have to make the tough call: roll the caucus now, or roll them once the blame has been assigned. No one envies the Speaker these days.

Updated @ 4:04PM on 2/25: After not speaking to one another for 2 weeks, Speaker Boehner was seen entering Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office this afternoon. Boehner has said that the House would not move forward until the Senate path became more clear. The Senate is set to vote on a clean DHS bill tomorrow, Thursday 2/26. 

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