WASHINGTON -- With the Senate set to vote Tuesday on a dead-on-arrival bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security and limit executive immigration programs, President Barack Obama urged Congress on Monday not to risk a shutdown that would lead to workers going without paychecks.
"The men and women of the America's homeland security apparatus do important work to protect us and Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be playing politics with that," he said in remarks at DHS headquarters. "We need to fund the department. Pure and simple."
Funding for DHS is set to run out on Feb. 27. If there is a shutdown of the agency, most employees would be considered essential and would continue working, but they wouldn't receive paychecks. The White House released a statement Monday saying more than 40,000 border patrol agents would work without pay under a shutdown, along with 13,000 at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 40,000 in the Coast Guard, 50,000 at the Transportation Security Administration and 4,000 in the Secret Service.
House Republicans passed a DHS funding bill last month, but with measures included to gut Obama's immigration policies. Republicans say Obama's actions were unconstitutional and they must do something to stop them. But that bill was met by a veto threat and promises by Senate Democrats to oppose it.
In the House, leadership made the DHS funding bill more conservative in order to win the votes from its members. But Senate GOP leadership doesn't have the luxury of getting legislation through without bipartisan support. Although they hold 54 seats, Republicans would need six Democrats to vote with them to move forward to the House's DHS funding bill. Forty-five members of the Democratic caucus sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week saying they backed Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in his call for a clean DHS funding bill.
Funding for DHS has fallen victim to controversy over Obama's immigration executive actions, which Republicans say are an unconstitutional overreach of his authority. One, the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, allows undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children -- often called Dreamers -- to temporarily stay and work legally. A new program will do the same for some parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.
For Democrats, it provided a perfect talking point: Republicans are more interested in deporting young people than they are in keeping DHS funded, they said.
"It seems our Republican colleagues are willing to shut down the government despite the fact that we have such security needs here in this country. ... They dislike Dreamers more than they dislike ISIS," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) quipped last Thursday at a press conference, referring to the Islamic State.
The Democrats' message was bolstered the same day by a letter to McConnell and Reid from the three former secretaries of Homeland Security: Democrat Janet Napolitano and Republicans Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff. The former secretaries said DHS funding should be considered apart from Obama's executive actions on immigration.
Obama said he believes what he did was "the right thing and the lawful thing," although Republicans are free to disagree. But he said that debate should take place elsewhere.
"If they don't agree with me, that's fine -- that's how our democracy works," Obama said. "You may have noticed they usually don't agree with me. But don't jeopardize our national security over this disagreement."
Along with the letter from the former DHS leaders, Democrats seized on comments last week by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) -- who, notably, is a supporter of immigration reform and opposed the rider-laden bill to fund DHS -- about the fact that most of the agency would continue functioning if there was a shutdown.
"In other words, it's not the end of the world if we get to that time because the national security functions will not stop -- whether it's border security or a lot of other issues," Diaz-Balart told Politico. "Having said so, I think we should always aspire to try to get it done."
Obama referenced those comments specifically, and said a shutdown would be a major problem for those who did not get pay during the period.
"As one Republican put it, if they let your funding run out, it's 'not the end of the world,'" he said. "That's what they said. Well, I guess literally that's true -- it may not be the end of the world, but until they pass a funding bill, it is the end of a paycheck for tens of thousands of frontline workers who will continue to have to work without getting paid."
Opponents of Obama's program are also using the courts to block Obama's immigration policies. Twenty-six states are seeking to stop implementation, and had a first hearing last month. The House of Representatives may also sue the president over executive actions.