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Republicans Hope To Use Homeland Security Budget As Leverage On Immigration


Friday night when the clock strikes midnight, the Department of Homeland Security is officially out of operating money. And if Congress fails to pass a spending bill before then, tens of thousands of employees will be furloughed while some 200,000 will keep working without a paycheck. The hang up - Republicans are using the issue as leverage to undo President Obama's executive actions on immigration. Joining us from the capital with the latest on this fight are NPR's Ailsa Chang who covers the Senate and Juana Summers who covers the House. Hi to both of you.



SIEGEL: Let's start with Ailsa. Where do things stand right now?

CHANG: Well, right now we are still waiting for a deal. You know, magical things happen at the very last minute around here, and I guess with a whopping three and a half days to go, that's basically eons of time in Congress terms. But where we are right now is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has agreed to bring to the floor a so-called clean DHS funding bill, one that wouldn't have any policy provisions attached to it. He will also bring to the floor a bill that defunds the president's executive action on immigration. And that bill does not address DHS funding at all.

It's a way of decoupling the immigration fight from funding for Homeland Security, presumably to avoid a shutdown of DHS. But Senate Democrats are now saying what they first want is a guarantee that this clean bill will pass the House before they go along with any of this plan. So Democrats are saying the ball is now in House Speaker John Boehner's court. Here's Minority Leader Harry Reid.


SENATOR HARRY REID: We're willing to debate anything they want on immigration as long as we have a bill that the president of the United States signs funding Homeland Security. That's where we are.

SUMMERS: House Republicans are meeting tomorrow together for the first time this week, so we'll know more about where they stand after that.

SIEGEL: Now, Juana Summers, you're on the House side, so what does the immigration fight have to do with DHS, and how did we get to this point?

SUMMERS: Here is how we got here. And it's actually something that dates all the way back to December of last year. If you remember, that is when Congress passed a massive spending bill that funded almost all of the government through September of this year except, you guessed it, the Department of Homeland Security. Republican leaders split that department's funding off from the rest of the government because they wanted more leverage to challenge the president on immigration when the new Congress began in January - and of course, Republicans having control of both chambers. But now Republicans have control, and it's still not clear how this stalemate will resolve.

SIEGEL: And also, Senator McConnell did vow that there would be no government shutdowns under a Republican Senate. So what's at stake for him here?

CHANG: Well, remember, McConnell began his tenure as Senate majority leader promising to make the Senate work again to show everyone that a Republican majority can get things done. So you might ask how does this month-long impasse on funding DHS show anyone things are getting done? Well, Republicans are blaming Democrats for continually blocking them - for blocking the bill the House passed that did fund DHS but also reversed the president's immigration policies. Here's Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama who was asked if Republicans are having a tough start showing the world they can govern.


SENATOR RICHARD SHELBY: I don't think it's a tough start. I think it shows that what the Democrats are up to is obstructionism. You know, they're the ones filibustering. We've been wanting to vote. Now, at times we may have filibustered. Maybe we did, but now it's - they are the obstructionists.

SIEGEL: That's a Republican senator from Alabama, Richard Shelby. Finally, let's look at the human cost of this. DHS employees from the Border Control to the Coast Guard will have to go without a paycheck until Congress resolve this. You talked to some of them. What are they going through?

CHANG: Well, it's stressful. I mean, for workers living paycheck-to-paycheck, missing even one paycheck is a big deal. One TSA worker I met last week remembers the October 2013 shutdown very clearly because he missed two paychecks. And at one point he was down to only 300 bucks in his banking account, and he remembers going to the grocery store and stocking up on the cheapest food items he could find to last a few weeks. You know, many workers I talked to just feel caught in the middle and have no interest in being used for this political game.

SIEGEL: NPR's Ailsa Chang and Juana Summers from the Capitol. Thanks to both of you.

CHANG: You're welcome.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.