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Why Republicans can't stop wasting time on shutdown politics

For the last month, Congress has been debating whether, and how, to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded through the end of February. At the end of February, they're still debating it. And as of Friday morning it looks like the best option for DHS is a short-term bill that prolongs the debate for another three weeks — and even that plan is far from a sure thing.

In Congress, time matters. There's less of it than you'd think — recesses eat up a lot of the calendar — and it takes time to get anything done, particularly in the Senate. If a prolonged fight over funding DHS is the focus for months of that limited time, it raises the question: What does the Republican Party actually want to do with its majority in Congress?

At some point, letting the DHS fight continue to eat up time on the clock means there's less time for anything else. This isn't what the party ran on or came into office to do — and it should be a major disappointment for any Republican hoping to use the 114th Congress as a way to present an agenda the party can run on in 2016.

When Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave their mission statement for the 114th Congress after a resounding victory in the 2014 elections, they said that the American people expected the new Republican majority to govern. That meant avoiding legislative crises and the threat of government shutdowns — a promise they've essentially broken at this point on DHS, which, even if it doesn't end up shutting down, is going to come darn close to it.

And there was a particularly big priority for McConnell: passing a real, debated-in-advance, thoroughly-considered budget, instead of relying on a series of last-minute continuing resolutions and omnibus appropriations bills (which has often happened during the Obama administration). Budgeting takes time. And that time is getting frittered away rapidly on the prolonged fight over a DHS bill.

All of this is to say nothing of legislation Republicans might actually want to propose themselves to squeeze moderate or vulnerable Democrats on health care, or trade, or any issue that isn't immigration (or the Keystone XL pipeline, which Republicans have already passed a bill on; that bill has already been vetoed). Or of legislation they might want to propose to articulate a Republican agenda for America going into the 2016 presidential election.

There is, certainly, a faction of conservative Republican legislators — particularly in the House — for whom stopping Obama's "executive amnesty" is their agenda. Those members shouldn't have any problem with the way the party's spent its time in the majority so far: it's focused pretty exclusively on what, to them, is the fundamental issue. But there are also, almost certainly, Republicans outside the party's most conservative faction who also believe that Obama's executive actions on immigration are unconstitutional and should be stopped — but who wouldn't be happy if, in November 2016, this were the only thing that Republicans had brought up and considered in the 114th Congress.

It won't actually take that long. But at a certain point, this becomes a question of resource allocation. The fight over DHS has revealed exceedingly little over what each party wants to do with government. It's barely even revealed anything over what either party wants to do on immigration, which is what the whole fight is ostensibly about.

Ironically, the bill the Senate has agreed to take up after it funds DHS, a stand-alone bill introduced by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) that would solely target Obama's 2014 executive actions, looks likely to spur a much more illuminating debate over immigration — particularly if McConnell remains true to his agreement with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and allows both parties to offer a range of amendments. (Democrats blocked an attempt to bring the Collins bill up Friday, since DHS funding is still up in the air.) And the House Judiciary Committee is planning to take up a series of immigration bills next week which will also say more about what Republicans actually want to do on immigration than the DHS fight has so far.

And if the DHS funding battle does take up another three weeks, it won't suddenly become an illuminating debate. It will just mean more time that can't be spent doing other things.

One of the fundamental lessons of time-management skills is that, even if the first task on your to-do list is the most important, you can't let it take up all of your time, because the rest of the to-do list is still there. There are definitely Republicans who have other things on the to-do list, and one of those Republicans is running the Senate. If they want to make sure they have time to get other things done, at some point, those Republicans are going to have to start making decisions about how long to let the clock run on fights like this.