Less than six weeks on his powerful Capitol Hill perch, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is on the verge of watching one of his most important promises — to never again shut down the government — go up in smoke.
Lawmakers on Friday began a 10-day hiatus, leaving them just four days when they return to pass funding for the Department of Homeland Security to avoid the shutdown of a key federal agency. The DHS budget fight follows an effort among GOP conservatives to roll back President Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration.
Conservatives are adamant that the security agency should be funded only if the legislation also overrules Obama’s orders, which prevent the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants. But Senate Democrats, even the few who oppose Obama’s moves, have blocked the House-passed legislation with repeated filibusters.
That has left McConnell trapped inside a legislative box that he had vowed to avoid — and one that for the previous four years his close ally, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), frequently wandered into without an exit strategy.
McConnell was determined not to repeat those mistakes.
“Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns,” McConnell said the day after he won reelection and a Republican rout gave his party the Senate majority.
But this week, McConnell declared the Senate stuck, and in need of Boehner’s help. The speaker was not in a helping mood. Boehner said he has no interest in passing legislation through the House that could draw Democratic support in the Senate.
“The House has done its job,” Boehner told reporters Thursday. “We’ve spoken. And now it’s up to the Senate to do their job.”
A shutdown of one agency would not cause nearly the same disruptions as the October 2013 shutdown of the federal government, which resulted in national parks closing, furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal workers and a general sense of disgust with Washington dysfunction. If no deal is reached, the Department of Homeland Security would deem many workers essential — particularly those overseeing border security, airline safety, disaster responses and domestic terror assessments — but even those federal workers would be going without an assurance of being paid.
Many Republicans fear that public reaction would mirror October 2013, when Republicans tried to force Obama to accept a funding plan that would have gutted his landmark health-care law. That shutdown cratered public support for Republicans, leaving them in a hole that took them almost a year to climb out of and McConnell adamant about not repeating the mistake.
In an interview just before he formally took over as majority leader, McConnell said his biggest political goal was a productive governance that was “not scary” to the public. He said his aim was to boost the Republican 2016 presidential nominee’s chances. Some Republicans fear that Democrats would win a DHS-shutdown fight by portraying the GOP majority as recklessly endangering national security over a political fight with Obama.
“I don’t think a shutdown of the department whose purpose is to secure our homeland is a good idea for anybody,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the most outspoken critic of the 2013 strategy that led to a 16-day shutdown, said Thursday.
Some McConnell advisers suggest that a brief lapse in funding for one federal agency would not break his no-shutdowns promise. McConnell made no public mention of the DHS showdown, sticking to his comments that Boehner will have to make the next move.
“I think it’s clear we can’t go forward in the Senate unless you all have heard something I haven’t,” McConnell said. “And so the next move, obviously, is up to the House.”
The year-end funding showdown in December was built around the principle of avoiding this kind of brinkmanship, with Boehner and McConnell scuttling the possibility of a broad shutdown by agreeing to pass 11 of the 12 annual bills that fund the federal agencies.
The DHS was left out because of opposition to the executive action Obama announced deferring deportations of millions of illegal immigrants. The DHS, the agency in charge of immigration and border policy, was given a short-term extension of funds until Feb. 27, buying time for McConnell and Boehner to come up with an escape plan — one that has yet to appear.
“I have every confidence we will meet the deadline, one way or the other,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), McConnell’s top lieutenant on the leadership team. “Just how, I can’t tell you right this minute.”
Democrats said even a small-scale shutdown so soon on McConnell’s watch would hurt him politically. They believe it would set a precedent, with the far right wing pushing him around in the same manner that House conservatives have backed Boehner into corners he wanted to avoid.
“I think it’s a big problem,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber. “They said: We’re going to show we can run the trains on time and we are, quote, not scary. So if they start off by jeopardizing funding for the premier agency for America’s defense against terrorism — not a good start.”
There is time to avert a shutdown, but it almost certainly involves capitulation to the Democrats.
One possibility is to remove the language on immigration and pass a “clean” funding bill, which would probably prompt the biggest revolt from conservative activists. A second option is to pass another short-term extension of DHS funding for a few more weeks or months.
The latter idea, more palatable to conservatives, puts off for another day the same predicament the leadership finds itself in now.
A third option is to dig in for a fight and let funding dry up for an agency that is seen as essential to protecting the nation.
Although that is anathema to many Republicans, the idea has gained traction among leading establishment conservatives.
“Both sides run a risk here,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. He argued that Republicans should leave in place Obama’s order that protected children from deportation but instead dig in against the more expansive 2014 order that extended the protections to several million adult illegal immigrants, even if it means a lapse in funding for DHS.
“The Democrats are wrong here to say, ‘I’m not going to fund DHS, because I insist that President Obama get all he wants when it comes to executive amnesty,’ ” Graham said. “I think that is a huge mistake.”
McConnell, stoic in public, is the same way in private, senators say. He has not betrayed any worry about the pending deadline.
“I think everybody’s worried about it,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who is the longest-
serving member of the GOP caucus and has served with McConnell for 30 years. “McConnell’s a pro. He doesn’t show his feelings.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), the conservative Democrat who opposes Obama’s immigration orders, said McConnell needs to convince Boehner that they have to pass the funding bill without any of the policy conditions and instead send over a discrete piece of legislation that would repeal the presidential orders.
“If they don’t have me, where do they go?” said Manchin, the Democrat who most frequently partners with Republicans.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is they could probably clean this up very quickly.”