As shutdown looms, lawmakers may fund Homeland Security without immigration

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge listens at left as current Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson speaks during a news conference in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. At right is another former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Senate Democrats on Wednesday signed onto a Republican plan to fund the Homeland Security Department without the immigration provisions opposed by President Barack Obama. The announcement by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid put the Senate on track to pass the bill as a partial agency shutdown looms Friday at midnight. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Three days before a partial Homeland Security shutdown, lawmakers cleared the way Wednesday for Senate passage of legislation to fund the agency without immigration-related provisions opposed by President Barack Obama.

Approval in the Senate would send the issue to the House, where some conservatives derided the plan as a surrender to the White House. Other Republicans predicted it would clear, but Speaker John Boehner declined to say if he would put it to a vote.

“I’m waiting for the Senate to act. The House has done their job,” he said at a news conference where he repeatedly sidestepped questions about his plans.

Increasingly, though, it appeared the only alternative to House acceptance of the Senate measure — or perhaps a short-term funding bill — was the partial shutdown of a federal department with major anti-terrorism responsibilities — and the likelihood the GOP would shoulder whatever political blame resulted.

With the clock steadily winding down before a midnight Friday funding deadline, it remains unclear just how a shutdown would impact the Lowcountry.

More than 1,500 people are employed through DHS in South Carolina, according to Marsha Catron, the department’s press secretary. Exactly how many of those employees would be placed on furlough in the event of a shutdown will be announced in the department’s contingency plan, which was still being developed as of Wednesday night, she said.

The developments in Congress unfolded as Obama met at the White House with immigration activists before departing for a speech in Florida, where more than 23 percent of the population is of Hispanic descent.

One person attending the meeting, Frank Sharry, quoted Obama as saying Republicans were engaging in “kabuki” to appease conservatives who adamantly oppose presidential directives that would allow more than 4 million immigrants to remain in the country without threat of deportation even though they came to the country illegally.

Obama also predicted his administration would win a reversal in court of a ruling that has temporarily blocked his policies from taking effect, according to Sharry, who is executive director of America’s Voice.

The president had already arrived in Florida aboard Air Force One when the Senate took the first of several votes that could be required to pass the standalone spending bill. The tally was 98-2, reflecting a bipartisan sentiment that it was time to bring the current episode to a close.

The Homeland Security funding legislation has been at the core of a politically charged struggle for weeks in the Senate. Democrats have repeatedly blocked action on the measure, objecting that it included House-passed immigration provisions that the White House opposed.

With the threatened partial shutdown approaching, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., retreated on Tuesday, offering separate votes on two bills. One would provide DHS funding, while the other would repeal Obama’s immigration directives issued last year.

Democrats initially said they wouldn’t agree unless Boehner signed on to the deal, but after a closed-door meeting, the party’s leader gave his consent.

“It’s an important step to be able to send to the House of Representatives a bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security,” said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

Moments later, he and McConnell jointly pledged to pass a funding measure swiftly without the immigration provisions attached. McConnell said he hoped it could be cleared and “sent back to the House this week.”

In the event of a shutdown, the bulk of Coast Guard crews, Transportation Security Administration personnel and others deemed “essential” to operations will likely be forced after the deadline to work without pay until an agreement is reached.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Anthony Soto said on Tuesday that no furloughs had yet been assigned to Charleston-area employees. When asked about the TSA’s plans, an official deferred comment to Catron, who deferred to a statement released Wednesday by TSA’s Acting Administrator Melvin J. Carraway.

About 90 percent of the TSA’s workforce, roughly 50,000 people, will likely continue working without pay, Carraway said in the statement, and roughly 6 percent could be placed on furlough.

“As a counterterrorism organization, our dedicated and professional workforce will, in the event of a shutdown, continue to secure our nation’s transportation systems, without pay, just as they did during the government shutdown of 2013. Over ninety percent of our workforce – that’s about 50,000 employees – would continue to report to duty,” Carraway said. “Yes, critical operations would continue, but the support for those operations would cease. ... We hope that Congress will pass a clean budget for DHS. In the meantime, TSA remains dedicated to our mission to protect the nation’s transportation systems and ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”

A Customs and Border Protection official declined on Wednesday to discuss a shutdown’s impact on local employees, deferring to statements the agency’s Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske had made in the media, saying front-line officers and agents will remain on duty without pay as their positions are essential to facilitate international trade and travel.

The precise timing of the bill’s passage appeared to depend in large measure on the response of some of the Republican Party’s most dedicated opponents of easing immigration laws.

Among them, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential presidential contender in 2016, told reporters he saw nothing to be gained from delaying the bill’s inevitable passage by a day or so. Another, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, declined to comment.

Across the Capitol, House Republicans met privately to discuss the Senate measure as Boehner marked time, and lawmakers were told to be prepared to spend the weekend in the Capitol to resolve the issue.

Republican Rep. Pete King of New York predicted that a standalone spending measure would clear the House if it first passed the Senate. Yet he acknowledged that was not the preferred course of action for most members of the Republican rank and file, and there was ample evidence of that.

Thirty House conservatives sent a letter to Boehner and other top Republican leaders urging them to “stand firm against these unlawful executive actions” by Obama.

One frequent Republican rebel, Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, said Boehner would find himself on “very thin ice” if he relied primarily on Democratic votes to pass a funding bill stripped of provisions to roll back immigration directives that Obama issued in 2012 and last year.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson stepped up his involvement in the debate, too.

He said that without legislation to set new spending levels, there would be no money for new initiatives such as “border security on the southern border.” He also said disaster relief payments “would grind to a halt.”

Officials have said that more than 85 percent of the agency’s workforce — 200,000 out of 230,000 employees— would continue to work even if the funding were not approved because they are deemed essential for the protection of human life and property. That includes front-line workers at the Customs and Border Patrol, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration.

The Post and Courier’s Christina Elmore contributed to this report.