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Republicans offer Obama choice between immigration reform and counter-terror funding

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A fresh clash between the House of Representatives and the White House over immigration reform has thrown future funding for the Department of Homeland Security into doubt, including funding for counter-terrorism programs.

Despite heightened security fears following attacks in Paris, Republicans placed themselves on a collision course with Barack Obama by passing five amendments to the homeland security budget that the White House has already said it would refuse to sign if they are attached.

Existing funding for the department expires at the end of February, after Congress separated it from the rest of the annual federal budget to give critics of immigration reform a chance to hitch their cause to what was seen as a must-pass legislation once Republicans took full control of both chambers.

But since then, terror attacks in France and Australia have raised the stakes by threatening to disrupt security funding at a time of high alert. The US State Department last week issued a “worldwide caution” that US citizens were at risk.

The White House, however, has shown no sign of being willing to blink in its standoff with Republicans over immigration.

“The administration strongly opposes the addition of any amendments to the legislation that would place restrictions on the department’s ability to set smart enforcement priorities focused on criminals, national security threats, and recent border crossers, hold undocumented immigrants accountable, and modernise the legal immigration system,” said a White House policy statement on 12 January.

“If presented to the president with objectionable restrictions, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto this bill.”

Despite this, the Republican-controlled House passed five amendments on Wednesday morning by clear margins, including measures that would not just defund the president’s recent executive actions on undocumented adult migrants, but also unpick his earlier action on so-called “dreamers”, the US-raised children of such migrants.

Democrats slammed the tactic during debates leading up to the vote, claiming it was holding national security to ransom in pursuit of an entirely unrelated issued.

“Let us not hold America’s national security and the safety of our people hostage to political difference,” said Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

“The sad truth is that if those amendments are put on this bill, the president of the United States will not sign it. In other words, you are going to hold hostage the security, and in return, if he doesn’t do what you say, security be damned,” he added. “This leaves us vulnerable at a time we cannot afford to be vulnerable.”

 David Price of North Carolina called it a poison pill that “caters to every whim of the most extreme elements of the Republican Congress”, while Linda Sanchez of California claimed it was a “juvenile” act: “As they peddle their madness about immigrants to pander to their, base they put our national security at risk”.

But Republicans were unapologetic about the decision to link homeland security funding with their concerns over Obama’s immigration actions, which they say are unconstitutional because they circumvent objections among lawmakers.

“What we are dealing with is a president who has ignored the people, ignored the constitution and even his past statements,” said speaker John Boehner.

Marsha Blackburn, who led the second amendment against child immigration, claimed Democrats were doing more harm to national security by not recognising the role that immigration reforms recently played in encouraging further illegal border-crossings.

“They accuse of playing politics with national security but why were they saying nothing this summer when the border was being overrun?” she said.

Her amendment was passed by 218 to 209 votes, while the main amendment to block recent executive immigration action was passed by 237 to 190, suggesting strong unity in the GOP caucus for the tactic.

The overall spending bill, including the controversial amendments, passed by 236 to 191 votes.

Administration officials claim the need to rely on short-term funding is already causing severe problems, including holding up a plan to upgrade security for the president following recent a fence-jumping incident at the White House.

“Until a full funding bill is passed, the secret service is not able to move forward with the recent recommendations from the report on White House security,” warned Andrew Mayock of the office of management and budget in a briefing for reporters.

More than $2bn of grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to state and local authorities are also in limbo, as are various new IT projects related to border security.

“There aren’t too many contractors that are interested in working with you only for a month or two,” said Gil Kerlikowske, the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection.

What is less clear is how much worse things would get if Congress fails to pass a homeland security budget that the president will sign.

White House officials refused to speculate on whether DHS employees, many of whom are deemed essential workers and required to turn up to work, would get paid during any shutdown period.

 Officials hope that pressure from the Senate will eventually force the amendments to be dropped from the House version of the funding bill, although the new Republican majority in the upper chamber also appears determined to make some sort of stand against the president’s immigration policy and the process may drag out for weeks leading up to the current expiry of funding in February.

The Guardian

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