Why the Beltway showdown over Homeland Security is a nothingburger

Just when we needed some excitement, there’s another great fiscal showdown in Washington.

Try not to hyperventilate.

It’s not a fiscal cliff this time. More of a fiscal speed bump.

The media consensus is that if Congress fails to fund the Homeland Security Department, Republicans will be blamed.

It says so right there in the New York Times headline: “Funding Fight for Homeland Security Poses Dangers for the GOP":

"It is a risky moment for the new congressional majority. A nasty partisan impasse over funding for a vital agency would probably damage the party’s brand just months after Republicans took power, and the impact could carry over into the next election cycle."

The Washington Post goes with a more neutral “Republicans Divided as DHS Shutdown Looms.”

This is, of course, a fight over immigration. The Republican-controlled Congress wants to use Friday’s deadline to deny funding for President Obama’s unilateral order to protect about 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation.

And it’s not hard to find Republicans who think this is a terrible strategy. John McCain, for one, says his party will be blamed if the money isn’t approved. “We need to fund the Department of Homeland Security,” McCain says. “We cannot shut down the Department of Homeland Security.”

The problem for the GOP is that Mitch McConnell has loudly proclaimed he wants to move past the era of government shutdowns. The spectacle of furloughs less than two months into his tenure as majority leader will make it look like he’s not in control. And he doesn’t have the votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

Some conservatives are also suggesting that the administration is hyping a threat to gain leverage in the negotiations. After the terror group Al Shabaab released a video calling for an attack on Minnesota’s Mall of America, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson made the rounds of all five Sunday shows. The Bush administration often played up terror threats and was accused of politicizing the issue, but Obama’s approach has been to minimize such chatter in the post-Bin Laden era.

Still, the ticking clock gives the Beltway press a bit of excitement in a capital where nothing is happening on the governing front. “Congress inches closer to cliff,” a Politico headline says.

So why am I not losing sleep over this?

For one thing, it wouldn’t be much of a shutdown. About 30,000 of the 230,000 DHS employees would be furloughed, with the rest deemed “essential” personnel (though they would not receive paychecks until after the impasse is resolved). Security folks would still report to work at the airports, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard.

But I doubt any of this will happen. This is precisely the kind of situation that Congress excels in finding ways to paper over.

McConnell yesterday was already lining up to punt. He offered Democrats a "clean" bill that keeps the money flowing to DHS through September--the classic kick-the-can strategy. Separately, Congress could pass a resolution disapproving of Obama’s immigration move while also approving the funding. The Republicans could also wait until the legal fight over a Texas judge’s order blocking the immigration move plays out.

Blocking a bill on X because you’re concerned about Y is a time-honored legislative tactic employed by both parties. These maneuvers rarely succeed in the long term because they’re ultimately about the politics of symbolism.

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