"Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns."
That definitive statement was made by none other than Mitch McConnell the day after he cruised to re-election and succeeded in attaining his life-long dream: Majority Leader of the United States Senate. It was a bold comment to make, given that only a year prior to those remarks, House and Senate Republicans contributed to a shutdown of the federal government in a politically-damaging attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act. That shutdown lasted for over two weeks, with federal government employees and congressional staffers out of work through no fault of their own.
So, when McConnell pledged that there wouldn't be anymore shutdowns as long as he was the Senate Majority Leader, you couldn't help but come to the conclusion that Congress -- or at least the responsible members in the congressional leadership -- learned their lesson: shutting the fed down for a principle is not worth the cost or embarrassment that such a legislative maneuver would entail.
Fast-forward 16 months later, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are again wrestling with a potential cataclysmic event that would close the Department of Homeland Security -- all at a time when Islamic State affiliates are popping up around the Middle East and North Africa, Congress is preparing to debate a use of force resolution, and lone-wolf terrorist attacks are reverberating across Western Europe. Shuttering DHS is a terrible thing to do at any time and during any circumstances, but it's an especially terrible time at the moment, when thousands of Europeans who have flocked to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State are only a plane-ride away from entering the United States.
We all know the story here. The Republican-led House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill that would fund DHS until September 2015, but that same legislation would block any funding from being used to implement President Obama's executive orders on immigration. The Senate Democratic caucus has filibustered the House bill three times already, defending their president while at the same time sticking up for what many of them would categorize as partial immigration reform. With the House bill dead in the Senate, Speaker John Boehner has shown absolutely no willingness to revisit the issue and pass a "clean" DHS funding bill as President Obama and the Democrats have called for.
Larry Downing -- Reuters
With Congress off this week for the Presidents' Day holiday, lawmakers will have only five legislative days to find some kind of compromise before DHS shuts down and its workers are left without paychecks.
I could take the easy way out and act like the registered Republican that I am, reflectively blaming Senate Democrats for refusing to even debate the DHS bill that the House passed last month. And, I would have a point: after all, if Democrats are so firmly opposed to the House DHS bill, why not allow the Senate to debate it before casting a "nay" vote? Dropping the filibustering would be a low-risk strategy for the Democrats, because Mitch McConnell & Company would not be able to override a presidential veto.
But I'm not going to take that line, because the fact of the manner is that both parties -- Republicans and Democrats -- are playing politics with U.S. national security. Senate Democrats may be blocking debate right now, but it was the House Republican caucus that passed an appropriations bill for the Homeland Security Department knowing full well that Democrats would refuse to support it. That isn't exactly a bipartisan solution to a bipartisan problem.
What to do? Well, since both parties are not blameless victims, the Republican and Democratic leaderships in both houses of Congress need to act like pragmatic adults instead of stubborn children. Congress may be off for the entire week, but this shouldn't prevent lawmakers and their staffs from using some their vacation time to make phone calls and testing trial balloons before they come back into town.
Here are the only two conceivable options:
1) Strip the Immigration Language and Pass a Clean DHS: Republicans aren't going to like it, but sometimes it takes the better man (or woman) to walk away first. Although Democrats are now a minority in the Senate, they are a loud minority that cannot be ignored or pushed aside in favor of strictly partisan Republican legislation. No Republican-sponsored bill in the Senate can pass the cloture test without six Democratic senators. This obviously includes immigration and appropriations, the same two subjects that are making Washington look the polarized, divisive, and uncompromising town it was last year. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but no American voted last November for the partisanship and bickering to continue.
Republicans, as the governing majority in both Houses, have a right to set the agenda. But that they also have a duty to ensure that Congress makes decisions that do no harm to the country and to the American people. One of the highest priorities that Mitch McConnell should have is demonstrating to Americans (particularly before the 2016 presidential campaign heats up) that the Republican Party, when given the privilege of leading Congress, can put governing before ideology. What better way to accomplish that then by stripping the immigration riders from the DHS bill, passing a clean DHS funding mechanism, and later presenting stand-alone legislation that would address President Obama's immigration orders (Sen. Susan Collins is trying a similar approach that would repeal Obama's 2014 executive action, while keeping the 2012 DACA order in place).
2) Pass a Stop-Gap Continuing Resolution, Again: Without some kind of funding, DHS will shut down by February 27 and the tens of thousands of employees that call DHS home will be forced to work without pay for an undetermined period of time. Pushing through a three-month continuing resolution is certainly not the smartest way to govern and it does the Office of Management and Budget no favors when they are negotiating terms for next year's budget, but it's certainly a better alternative than doing nothing and letting the money run out. Granted, this approach would only postpone the immigration fight for later in the year, and Capitol Hill will have to go through the motions again sometime in May or June. But at least DHS employees will get paid.
What other choice do Republicans have, beside shutting down the department or repeatedly voting on the same House-passed bill over and over again (which eventually leads to the same exact outcome)? If there is a better way, now would be a good time to write your member of Congress.