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Homeland Security shutdown nears amid immigration impasse

Tuesday, February 24, 2015 - 08:01
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U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson speaks as employees of the Homeland Security Department look on during a news conference on Feb 23, 2015

[WASHINGTON] The US Department of Homeland Security is nearing a partial shutdown as the agency's funding is set to expire on Friday - something Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had said wouldn't happen on his watch.

The Senate failed on Monday in its fourth attempt to advance a Homeland Security spending bill. The vote was 47-46 with 60 required.

Democrats blocked the measure because Republicans insist on using it to reverse President Barack Obama's decision to ease deportation for about 5 million undocumented immigrants in the US.

Mr Obama told the nation's governors Monday that a shutdown of the agency will affect the economy and the nation's security.

"These are folks who, if they don't have a paycheck, are not going to be able to spend that money in your states," Mr Obama told members of the National Governors Association at the White House. "It will have a direct impact on your economy, and it will have a direct impact on America's national security, because their hard work helps to keep us safe."

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said a shutdown would require 75 per cent to 80 per cent of his employees, including border patrol agents and members of the Coast Guard, to work without pay.

The department would have to furlough 30,000 employees, including much of the headquarters staff.

ONE STEP

"Every day I press the staff at my headquarters to stay one step ahead of groups like ISIL and threats to our aviation security," Mr Johnson said in a news conference Monday, referring to the terror group Islamic State. "If we shut down, that staff is cut back to a skeleton."

House Speaker John Boehner, asked in a Fox News Sunday interview aired Feb. 15 whether he was prepared to let the department's funding lapse, said, "Certainly. The House has acted. We've done our job."

While Republican leaders are trying to pin the blame on Democrats, some Republicans warn that their party will shoulder the responsibility for any disruptions.

"For God's sakes, don't shut down the premier homeland security defence line called the Department of Homeland Security," Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Monday on the Fox & Friends programme. "If we do, as Republicans, we'll get blamed."

BLAMING REPUBLICANS

A new CNN/ORC poll showed that 53 per cent of Americans would blame Republicans in Congress for a shutdown, while 30 per cent would blame Obama. A majority said a shutdown, even for only a few days, would be a crisis or a major problem.

The Obama administration Monday asked a Texas judge to suspend an order that forced the White House to delay carrying out its immigration plans during a court challenge by Texas and 25 other states.

The administration gave US District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas, until the close of business Wednesday to act on his own before it goes directly to an appeals court in a bid to temporarily set aside his order.

The first part of Obama's action, an expansion of the 2012 programme protecting children from deportation, had been set to go into effect on Feb 18.

The stalemate in Congress comes amid heightened terrorism worries in the US On CNN's State Of The Union programme on Sunday, Johnson warned visitors to the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, to be "particularly careful." Terrorist Group A day earlier, a terrorist group in Somalia released a video calling for attacks in Canada, the US and the UK, according to the news network.

Mr McConnell would need support from at least six Democrats to get the 60 votes to advance the US$39.7 billion Homeland Security funding bill, H.R. 240. It was previously passed by the House.

If the bill doesn't move forward, Republican leaders must decide whether to give up the fight, something that would spark intense criticism from conservative lawmakers in Congress and from those attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Feb 25-28.

Much of the pressure is on McConnell after Boehner made clear that the House won't take up another bill. After Republicans won control of the Senate in November's election, Mr McConnell told reporters, "Let me make it clear, there will be no government shutdowns."

Members' Critics

If Mr Boehner agreed to pass a bill without the immigration language, he would face criticism from party members after repeatedly saying he would use the funding bill to confront Obama's orders.

Another option could temporarily take pressure off Mr McConnell of Kentucky and Mr Boehner of Ohio. Lawmakers may vote on 30-day funding for the agency, said a congressional aide who didn't want to be identified because talks were continuing.

Mr Johnson told reporters that such stopgap funding would make it impossible to pay for improvements to border security or issue grants to state or local governments.

"We are restricted to last year's funding levels and operate in a state of uncertainty as to when the next infusion of funds will be," he said.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, said a shutdown would cut pay for 60,000 employees and disrupt training for new border patrol officers.

Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said a continuing resolution or a shutdown would halt grant programs and hamper the way the agency responds to crises. FEMA would have to cancel training for first-responders, he said.

ESSENTIAL EMPLOYEES

During a 16-day partial government shutdown in October 2013, many Homeland Security employees remained on the job because they are considered essential. That includes active Coast Guard members, customs officers, immigration law enforcement officers and airport-screening officials.

The department estimates that at the Transportation Security Administration, furloughs would affect about 5,500, or 10 per cent, of workers, mainly in management and administrative jobs. Law-enforcement officers in the Federal Air Marshal Service would be exempt.

During the October 2013 shutdown, 86 per cent of FEMA's permanent workforce - about 4,000 employees - were furloughed.

Other Homeland Security programs are funded by fees instead of congressional appropriations and wouldn't be affected by a shutdown.

The federal government is required to pay anyone who works. During the last shutdown, about one-third of the government's 3 million workers who reported for duty weren't paid until after the shutdown ended.

BACK PAY

Even those placed on furlough are often paid. Congress voted to retroactively provide back pay to workers furloughed during the 2013 shutdown.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that airport screening agents wouldn't be paid on time during a partial shutdown.

Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said in an e-mailed statement that withholding paychecks would "erode employee morale and cause unnecessary anxiety for front-line personnel and their families." -With assistance from Toluse Olorunnipa in Washington.

BLOOMBERG