Dept. of Homeland Security shutdown looms, would idle 15% of workforce

Reuters / Kevork Djansezian
In a move that could have ramifications for domestic anti-terrorism efforts, US House Speaker John Boehner said he would let funding for the Department of Homeland Security lapse on Feb. 27 in order to reverse Obama’s immigration reform actions.

House Republicans have passed a Homeland Security appropriations bill, but it is contingent upon defunding Obama's 2012 and 2014 executive orders that negated the threat of deportation for an estimated five million undocumented immigrants seeking refuge in the United States.

In the Senate, Democrats have blocked the House funding bill three times, calling for “clean” DHS-funding legislation that would maintain Obama’s immigration orders. Obama, meanwhile, has threatened to veto the House measure.

"Senate Democrats are the ones standing in the way,” Speaker Boehner told Fox News on Sunday. “They’re the ones jeopardizing funding.”

Would he let the department’s funding expire? "Certainly,” Boehner answered. “The House has acted. We’ve done our job."

In the Senate, however, Republicans do not seem as headstrong about playing with DHS funding to defeat the immigration orders.

"The American people did not give us majority to have a fight between House and Senate Republicans," Arizona Sen. John McCain said on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press,’ in reference to last November’s midterm election. "They want things done. You cannot cut funding from the Department of Homeland Security. We need to sit down and work this thing out."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that the Upper Chamber was "stuck" and that it was up to the House to make the next move.

Despite this supposedly critical juncture, Congress is taking this week off, meaning lawmakers will have Feb. 24-27 to settle on DHS funding before its expiration.

Who goes to work without funding?

Funding expiration would affect some Department of Homeland Security (DHS) services, but not front-line airport or border security, according to reports.

The agency has designated around 85 percent of its workers, or about 200,000 people, as being ‘exempt’ from a forced furlough given they work in areas that are vital to security or are funded by sources unrelated to the congressionally-approved budget, Reuters reported.

For instance, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) travel screenings at airports would certainly continue, as would the Federal Air Marshal Service, Coast Guard patrols, and disaster relief execution.

While these employees would be required to work, they would not get paid until a funding measure is passed by Congress and signed by Obama.

About 30,000 employees would be sidelined during a department shutdown. Procurement, hiring, training, administrative support, and “the bulk” of management involved in coordinating efforts such as domestic anti-terror operations would all be affected by a funding expiration, according to Reuters.

In addition, E-Verify, a citizenship and visa database used in hiring processes, would not be active.

DHS secretary Jeh Johnson has said an agency shutdown would negatively affect investments in border security and geospatial intelligence operations, as well as the "more aggressive investigations" by immigration and customs officials of criminal organizations involved in drug, cyber, and human trafficking crimes.

The agency shutdown would not hamper the US Citizenship and Immigration Services – the agency charged with enacting Obama’s 2012 and 2014 executive actions on immigration reform – as it is funded mostly by fees paid by applicants.

READ MORE: Obama administration tells agents to find immigrants who should not be deported

Under the executive order Obama announced in November, undocumented immigrants who have lived in the US for five years or more, and are parents of American citizens or lawful residents, will be subjected to criminal and national security background checks. Once these are completed, they can pay taxes and defer deportation for three years at a time.

The plan also called for the US to increase security at the borders and focus deportation efforts on criminals and potential security threats rather than families.

Congressional Republicans have sought to block the order ever since.

"The House has acted to de-fund the department and to stop the president’s overreach when it comes to immigration and his executive orders," Boehner said on Sunday.

"The Congress just can’t sit by and let the president defy the Constitution and defy his own his oath of office."

House Democrats countered that the shutdown would threaten Americans’ safety.

"With only four legislative days left until the Republican Homeland Security Shutdown, Speaker Boehner made it clear that he has no plan to avoid a government shutdown that would threaten the safety of the American people," Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, told Reuters.

"The speaker’s reliance on talking points and finger-pointing was a sad reflection of the fact that (the) Tea Party continues to hold the gavel as they insist on their futile anti-immigrant grandstanding."

READ MORE: House votes to avoid govt shutdown, passes $1trn spending bill

The White House awaits a bill, but Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ on Sunday that he doesn’t “see exactly how Congress is going to resolve this.”

In October 2013, a similar, albeit larger, budget faceoff between Republicans and Democrats caused the the majority of the US government to shutdown for 16 days, putting nearly one million workers on mandatory leave. Yet, as is Washington’s custom with its increasingly-frequent budget imbroglios, an eleventh hour agreement spared a potentially damaging debt default.