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Homeland Security shutdown showdown: What we know, and what we don’t

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) formally take full congressional control on Jan. 6. (AP)

A potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security is just 10 days away. Here's how we got here and what could happen next.

Republicans have been attempting to rein in President Obama's move to grant protection from immediate deportation to more than 4 million illegal immigrants. Senate Democrats have so far blocked GOP legislation that, while providing full 2015 funding for DHS, effectively repeals those executive actions. A court ruling this week from a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocking implementation of the order is not directly connected to congressional action, but it has thrown a bit of gasoline onto an already smoldering fire.

Republicans publicly viewed the ruling as vindication for their position. Obama "doesn’t have the authority to take the kinds of actions he once referred to as 'ignoring the law' and 'unwise and unfair,'" Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement.

Countered Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.): "Senate Democrats have a simple solution for getting out of this jam: take up and pass a clean bill to fund Homeland Security, then move on to a robust debate on immigration legislation."

What We Know About the Legal Case: The judge's ruling could slow the implementation of the new immigration policy. As my colleagues David Nakamura and Juliet Eilperin reported, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen didn't rule on the legality of the executive orders on immigration, but did said that they shouldn't move forward while the case is being decided. The application process was supposed to begin Wednesday, and now that is up in the air. The ruling gives some legal momentum to the conservative cause.

What We Don't: The next steps in the legal process are entirely up in the air, and it could take more than a year to resolve this issue in the federal courts. Some legal experts and leading congressional Democrats said that they expected the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit to intervene and, at a minimum let the immigration program continue. But the losing side would probably take the case to the Supreme Court, which wouldn't be able to take up the case until next year due to a full docket.

What We Know About Congress's Steps: Congress, regardless of the judicial rulings, has a Feb. 27 deadline. When funding was approved for almost the entire federal government in December, Republicans refused to allow DHS to get its full share because of a pending executive action granting protections to millions of additional adult illegal immigrants. A compromise gave them until the end of this month, which allowed Republicans to formally claim the Senate majority. The House approved its version of DHS funding, plus riders blocking Obama's executive action, in mid-January, and the Senate has been stymied ever since by unified bloc of Democrats filibustering the legislation. Even some Democrats who oppose Obama on the immigration actions have said this is the wrong vehicle for tackling the issue.

What We Don't: Can this be resolved without a shutdown? Public statements by key leaders have only heightened the chances of some brief shutdown of DHS. Last week House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to consider passing any other legislation and publicly called on Senate Democrats to "get off their ass" and debate the bill. McConnell has been more circumspect, saying that the Senate is "stuck" and that the House would probably have to make the next move. But both the House and Senate are on a 10-day break; they won't have a full legislative day together until Feb. 25, before the Friday-night deadline.

What We Know About a Potential Shutdown: The outlines of how DHS would shut down are pretty clear, since an unrelated battle with Obama in October 2013 led to a full shutdown of the federal government for 16 days. "Essential" workers would report to duty but without pay; they would be at the borders protecting against drug dealers, manning airport security spots, preparing for emergency responses to natural disasters. Congress would probably provide back pay when funding came through. Tens of thousands of administrative staff would be furloughed; given what has happened in past shutdowns, they also would probably eventually be paid.

What We Don't: How long could it last? In the fall of 2013 House Republicans dug in and started approving rifle-shot bills to fund key federal agencies to provide political cover for their rank-and-file. But support for Republicans in Congress cratered and after little more than two weeks, McConnell was handed the task of negotiating surrender with Reid. National parks had closed, and the public had felt the sting of the shutdown. The shutdown of one agency probably would not be as widely felt.

What We Know About Public Reaction: Last time around, there was no doubt about the blame: it fell on Republicans. McConnell's advisers, keenly aware of this, began preparing a memo back in November that showed the impact on the brand of national Republicans because of the shutdown. It highlighted Gallup poll ratings showing that Democrats opened a 15-point lead over Republicans in favorable ratings at the time.

What We Don't: Who will get blamed this time around if there's a shutdown? Probably Republicans, but nothing is certain. A CNN poll released Tuesday showed that 53 percent of voters said they would blame congressional Republicans, with just 30 percent saying Democrats would be to blame. Republicans have been working aggressively to paint Democrats as obstructionists who won't even begin debate on the DHS legislation, trying to make the last action that happens before any shutdown a filibuster by Democrats. If somehow Republicans were to win that messaging war, it would completely upend the preconceived notions by most political strategists -- and prompt a few more What We Know/What We Don't Know columns here.