Should Republicans Stand Their Ground on DHS Funding?

February 26, 2015 Topic: Politics

Should Republicans Stand Their Ground on DHS Funding?

Republicans will get unfairly blamed for a Department of Homeland shutdown. Should they do it anyways?

A serious question: If Senate Democrats filibuster funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) because they dislike the immigration-action language, isn't it they who have technically shut down the department?

If President Obama were to veto an appropriations bill that funded DHS except for the executive amnesty program, would it not be he who was responsible for the shutdown?

The answer to both questions would seem to be yes, but we know from past experience that Republicans will be held responsible.

Bill Clinton vetoed bills passed by a Republican Congress that were aimed at keeping the government open. That Republican Congress was blamed for the government shutdown.

Republicans were similarly blamed for the shutdown that happened over Obamacare, though that was a bit more reasonable. Democrats still controlled the Senate and the GOP House was basically asking them to defund Obama's signature domestic-policy initiative, with the president's signature.

It seems inevitable that Republicans will be blamed for any disruption in DHS funding, since the unstated premise of the media coverage seems to be that they have no right to deny funding to any of the president's spending priorities.

That's why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been working furiously to get a clean DHS funding bill passed.

Here's what complicates things. First, there's the politics of the shutdown. Democrats don't really mind them, knowing that Republican poll numbers will take a hit and the GOP will eventually relent. For all their protests about national security, a government shutdown is a win for Democrats.

A lot of Republicans aren't really that afraid of shutdowns, either. They recall that for all the media and establishment handwringing, the party won the 2014 elections despite the defund Obamacare shutdown. They also retained control of Congress in 1996 after the Clinton-era shutdowns.

I think there's an airtight case to be made that all these shutdowns were a net negative for Republicans. But they certainly didn't hurt them as badly as the conventional wisdom predicted. The shutdowns hardly hurt safe conservative lawmakers at all.

That brings us to our next complication. As much as some rank-and-file conservatives are open to a shutdown, the Republican leadership is not. That's especially true in the Senate, where the GOP majority is much more precarious (it could conceivably be lost in 2016 without anything earth shattering happening) than in the House.

But how much do they really care about stopping the underlying policy of executive amnesty? The answer just might be "not very much."

As my Daily Caller colleague Neil Munro astutely pointed out, Republicans worked overtime to flip swing-state Democrats on the Keystone XL pipeline. They ran ads rallying voters against vulnerable Democrats, engaged in populist and pro-worker rhetoric, and even worked with labor unions.

Obama vetoed the Keystone bill anyway. But there's a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for Keystone. The pipeline has bipartisan support.

There's been no comparable effort against Obama's executive amnesty. This could be a classic wedge issue—the Democrats are shutting down DHS to protect a unilateral amnesty for illegal immigrants that at least one federal judge suspects might be illegal itself—but there doesn't seem to much desire to use the leverage to swing Democratic votes in the Senate.

In fact, many leading establishment Republican voices are urging GOP senators to grab the federal judge's injunction against the amnesty program as a lifeline. Karl Rove used this exact phrase in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

"The GOP’s ability to block Mr. Obama’s overreach now depends on the success of the court challenge mounted by 26 state attorneys general," Rove wrote. "And if they fail, on putting a Republican in the Oval Office." On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, major GOP donors and perhaps the next Republican in the White House only disagree with the process by which Obama granted amnesty, not the substantive policy.

It will remain to be seen whether the same can be said about the Republicans running Congress right now.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of the Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? He tweets at @jimantle.

Image: Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore