WASHINGTON -- With less than a month to go until the Department of Homeland Security runs out of funding and no clear end in sight to the gridlock that's preventing Congress from approving more, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned lawmakers Thursday not to threaten his agency's budget over immigration disputes.
"The clock to February 27 is ticking," he said in a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington. "In these times, the Homeland Security budget of this government should not be a political football."
Congress is currently embroiled in a debate over what to do about DHS funding, which is set to run out at the end of February. Many conservatives say they will only approve funding for DHS if the bill includes measures to block the president's immigration policies, and President Barack Obama has said he will veto anything that includes such riders.
The House passed a DHS funding bill earlier this month that would end Obama's recent executive actions on immigration. The president's actions could allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to temporarily stay in the country and work legally if they came to the U.S. as children or are parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. They would also block older policies that instruct immigration agents to focus on deporting convicted criminals, recent border-crossers and national security risks.
That bill is almost certain to fail in the Senate. All 46 members of the Democratic caucus said this week they will oppose a funding bill that has immigration measures attached, meaning Republicans won't get the 60 votes they need to move it forward. On Tuesday, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) introduced their own DHS funding bill without immigration riders.
In the event of a shutdown, most DHS employees would likely continue working, and much of the agency's activity could continue if there were a continuing resolution to keep funding at current levels.
But Johnson warned that a full-year budget at higher funding levels is necessary for DHS to carry out a number of plans. Among other things, the agency needs more money for border security efforts and to improve the Secret Service, as well as to hire agents to deal with the upcoming 2016 presidential campaign cycle, he said.
Former DHS secretaries have now chimed in as well. All three former DHS secretaries -- Democrat Janet Napolitano and Republicans Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge -- wrote a letter to lawmakers warning them that putting the agency's funding at risk could hurt national security.
"We do not question your desire to have a larger debate about the nation's immigration laws," they wrote, according to a Thursday report in The Washington Post. "However, we cannot emphasize enough that the DHS's responsibilities are much broader than its responsibility to oversee the federal immigration agencies and to protect our borders. And funding for the entire agency should not be put in jeopardy by the debate about immigration."
There could be an escape hatch for House Republican leaders in the form of a lawsuit, which would give the GOP a chance to voice its dissent with Obama's policies without risking a DHS shutdown. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) confirmed Wednesday that the party is taking steps toward such a move. The Obama administration is already facing a lawsuit from 26 states over the president's executive actions on immigration.
Although the House's immigration hardliners might not get on board for a clean DHS bill even with a lawsuit against the president, the legislation could win more Democratic support. House Democrats are expected to discuss their plans on Thursday at an issues retreat in Philadelphia, which will include an address from Obama.