Will Republicans Shut Down the Department of Homeland Security?


Paul Waldman notes today that Republicans have made a hash out of their first month in control of Congress, and I’d say he’s right about that. They keep getting distracted by events—executive actions from President Obama, vaccination pratfalls, infighting over symbolic votes, etc.—and that’s prevented them from doing much to advance their real agenda. Here’s one example:

Republicans tried to pass a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security and repeal President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Senate Democrats filibustered it, and in its current form it’s dead, meaning we’re headed for another shutdown mini-crisis. Spoiler alert: Republicans will lose, caving in and funding the department.

Hmmm. Although I agree with Waldman in general, Brian Beutler makes an interesting argument that he might be wrong in this particular case. Maybe Republicans won’t cave on the Homeland Security funding bill:

There’s something unique and confounding about the very premise of using DHS funding as a bargaining chip, and it scrambles the customary pattern….Unlike other GOP threats, this one isn’t an unsupportably dangerous, but canny bluff. To many casual spectators, threatening not to increase the debt limit sounded meaningless, or perhaps even like a good idea, when in fact the consequences of a collision with the debt limit would have been catastrophic. Threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security, by contrast, sounds incredibly reckless, but has little weight behind it. As a national security bureaucracy, nearly all of DHS’ functions and employees are exempt from the shutdown protocols that delay Social Security checks and require national parks to close.

It’s the easiest threat in the world for Democrats to demagogue but one that Republicans can make without courting genuine devastation, and many of them are thus catching on to the possibility that the political damage wouldn’t stick. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who heads the Senate Homeland Security committee is prepared to see the fight through past the deadline, precisely because “only 13.6 percent of DHS employees were furloughed” in the last shutdown. “[T]he national security aspects, the aspects of the department that keeps America safe, are continuing to function no matter what happens in this very dysfunctional place.”

I don’t know what to think of this, but it’s an interesting argument. Republicans may end up deciding that they can go ahead and shut down DHS without suffering any real damage. After all, the stuff people care about—the Security part of the Department of Homeland Security—would continue running regardless. So the public either wouldn’t care much, or might even side with Republicans. It all depends on what functions are lost during a shutdown and how much opposition Republicans can gin up against Obama’s immigration actions.

And that’s a bit of a wild card. So far, Obama’s immigration plan has polled pretty well, but that could change once it becomes a political hot potato and people really start paying attention to the demagoguery from the Republican side. We might find out that support for the immigration plan is wide but very, very shallow.

Of course, even a fight over DHS would be a distraction for Republicans, something they really weren’t planning on spending time on. So if it weren’t for the fact that compromise is considered basically treasonous in the tea party era, I’d say that some kind of modest compromise might be possible here. And who knows? It might still be. Despite all the sound and fury, the hard truth is that none of this is really all that big a deal.

But it might become one, even if Republican leaders would prefer otherwise. That’s the downside of giving tea partiers control of their agenda, isn’t it?