Weeks after winning the Senate, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had a nice thought:
“We will not be shutting the government down or threatening to default on the federal debt,” he said.
With less than two weeks before yet another government shutdown, chaos remains and dysfunction is still normal.
The latest manufactured drama is over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which is scheduled to expire on February 27.
The scenario should sound familiar:
Much like the government shutdown over defunding Obamacare, House Republicans are refusing to pass any bill that funds DHS that doesn’t contain a provision overturning the Obama administration’s executive orders on undocumented immigrants and Senate Democrats are refusing to debate any DHS funding bill that has this language.
(Nevermind, the bill would be vetoed the minute it hit the president’s desk. This isn’t about the winning—it’s about the game.)
The result is a partisan stalemate in which neither side will blink.
And once again, this was all by design.
This showdown was set up at the end of 2014 with the debate over “the Cromnibus,” the controversial budget bill that funded the government for most of 2015.
Many conservative Republicans were loath to agree to any measure that funded the government didn’t overturn the executive orders.
Democrats refused to go along with anything other than a bill that funded DHS and omitted the executive order language.
The language would go beyond the controversial executive order that Obama issued in 2014 to allow 5 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States and also apply to the “DREAMers,” a subset of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States while they were underage and have clean criminal records. DREAMers were allowed to stay in the United States in an executive order that the administration issued in 2012.
To avoid another government shutdown, a compromise was reached before lawmakers went home for the holidays.
Most of the federal government would be funded for a year but the DHS would only receive sufficient appropriations to last through the end of February.
The idea was that conservatives could force their standoff on immigration then and surely, no one would want to let the government agency responsible for keeping the United States safe go dark.
But, of course, that is not the case.
To add more futility to their cause, the DHS will keep on running even without being funded. Workers in key agencies like the Border Patrol and the Transportation Safety Administration are considered “essential” and will report to work regardless—they just won’t be paid to do their jobs.
While many other DHS employees could be furloughed, this limitation prevents a shutdown from turning into an immediate crisis and reduces the cost.
On Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner seemed ready to embrace a potential shutdown and unwilling to consider a compromise.
He told Fox News, “The House has acted. We’ve done our job.” Boehner then said, “Senate Democrats are the ones putting us in this precarious position. It’s up to Senate Democrats to get their act together.”
But it’s not just Senate Democrats who think shutting down the DHS is a bad idea. Senate Republicans—John McCain, Jeff Flake and Mark Kirk, to name a few—also have expressed problems with using the DHS as a way to tweak the president.
The impasse is also handing Senate Democrats a powerful political weapon.
In a statement last week Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid said, “The Republican Congress is a mess, pure and simple. Democrats are happy to help our Republican colleagues resolve their problems but the first step is for Republican leaders to do the right thing and pass a clean bill to fund Homeland Security.”
The political dilemma for Republicans is that while a shutdown plays well with their base, it gives them relatively little leverage.
Most key functions of the DHS will be funding regardless and the result of past GOP brinkmanship is that Republicans are likely to bear the burden of the blame for any shutdown.
It also creates peculiar consequences in the 2016 presidential race as well.
It combines two delicate political issues of immigration reform and a government shutdown into one package and places more moderate GOP hopefuls in a bind.
Do they want to let what Republicans universally believe is an unconstitutional executive order by the Obama administration stand or do they want to be put in a position of cutting funding to the DHS in the aftermath of a wave of Islamist terror attacks against American allies and interests.
The result is a familiar dysfunction.
Democrats won’t yield on Obama’s executive orders—a move that would risk undermining one of the most important actions of the president’s second term and lead to the potential deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.
Republicans can’t alienate their conservative base yet again by compromising on what has become such a point of principle.
This latest episode might frustrating in the short term but, like the last shutdown, it has a predictable end:
It’s not a question of whether Republicans will cave and fund the DHS, but when.