WASHINGTON -- The attack Wednesday on a French satirical newspaper brought into focus one of the most glaring pieces of work (intentionally) left undone by Congress: funding the Department of Homeland Security. The agency tasked with preventing attacks on American soil is going to run out of money on Feb. 27.
Congressional Republicans opted not to the fund the agency because of an ongoing dispute with President Barack Obama over executive orders he signed to legalize an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants. It's the agency's job to process visas for those immigrants. And so far there doesn’t appear to be enough pressure to make Republicans drop the fight over DHS funding, even in the wake of more attacks.
Congressional leadership was quick to tie American security to Wednesday's attack on Paris weekly Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed when three gunmen entered the publication's office and began shooting. French authorities have called it a “terrorist attack” and reports have linked the shooters to extremist Islamic groups.
“The war on terrorism is not over,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. House Speaker John Boehner echoed his sentiments, saying, “This vicious terrorist attack is a reminder that we must always be vigilant against the enemies of freedom.”
But the same leaders weren’t ready to drop their fight over the DHS funding.
“I said what happened over there reminds us that we should be vigilant. Terrorists around the world [are] intent on killing Americans and other freedom-loving individuals around the country,” Boehner said. “I believe that the president’s executive actions with regards to immigration are outside of the Constitution and outside of his powers. And I believe we can deal with that issue in the Department of Homeland Security bill without jeopardizing the security of our country.”
For years, funding for the agency has fallen into the same category as groups like the CIA, FBI and Department of Defense. Republicans have argued against cutting those agencies and tried to shield them from budget cuts, arguing that security is the most important function of the government. But now DHS finds itself with only short-term funding while the rest of the government is guaranteed to stay open until September.
Much of the department’s operations are considered essential, so in the October 2013 shutdown when a stalemate between Congress and the White House allowed all of the federal government’s funding to expire, much of DHS remained open. So if Congress doesn't provide funding for the agency after the February deadline, it would likely still continue to operate. And the parts of the department that handle visa applications are funded through fees, meaning they don’t need congressional funding approval to keep working.
But it would be a political problem for Republicans, who would likely be depicted as denying funding for an agency that is supposed to be preventing terrorist attacks in a dispute over immigration. If there is heightened concern among Americans that security is at risk, the political fallout of withholding funds for DHS could override the Republican desire to fight the president over immigration.
Republicans and Democrats are calling for a quick resolution to the DHS funding dispute.
"Whatever we do on that, as far as immigration, cannot in any way be allowed to interfere with our counterterrorism methods," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said on Fox News "The juxtaposition would be terrible -- a terrorist slaughter in Paris and U.S. cuts back on Homeland Security funding. We have to be sure whatever we do, if it's going to involve immigration, we cannot in any way allow the funding or the programs that stop terrorism in this country to be impeded whatsoever."
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer echoed the need to fund the agency.
“I hope that House Republicans will work with us in a bipartisan fashion to pass legislation to responsibly fund DHS through the end of the fiscal year so that we can keep our communities safe and our borders secure," Hoyer said.
McConnell, who has been a much stronger voice against letting funding expire but has at times been powerless from stopping House conservatives from doing so, indicated that regardless of what happens, Congress will ultimately fund the agency.
“It’s an important piece of legislation and we’ll decide in February how to handle it, but at the end of the day we’re going to fund the department obviously,” McConnell said.