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Congress will keep DHS open — for another week

Sometimes everybody has to work together.
Sometimes everybody has to work together.
Drew Angerer/Getty

  1. Late Friday night, both chambers of Congress passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for another seven days.
  2. The vote came together at the last minute. The Senate passed a one-week extension extremely quickly, then adjourned. After that, the House of Representatives — which had failed to pass a three-week extension earlier Friday — got together to pass the one-week extension.
  3. Some conservatives objected to the extension, but Democrats backed House Speaker John Boehner's proposal to get the one-week extension passed.
  4. This will narrowly avoid a shutdown of the department, which was scheduled to run out of funds at midnight tonight.
  5. This simply pushes the deadline off by one week. House Republicans continue to insist that any long-term DHS funding bill includes a provision that would kill President Obama's executive actions on immigration; Senate Democrats continue to filibuster any bill that ties the immigration actions to DHS funding.

The DHS fight will eat up the next week of Congress' time — at least

The upshot here: Congress has already spent a month debating DHS funding, and it still hasn't made any progress (beyond delaying the deadline). Now, it will spend another week, at least, on the debate over how to keep the department open.

The question is how much longer than a week it will take. Reportedly, Speaker of the House John Boehner promised Democrats that he will bring up a bill next week to fund DHS through September — like the one the Senate has already passed. But most House Republicans have been insistent that any DHS funding bill include some sort of restriction on the Obama administration's executive actions to protect immigrants from deportation. So it's not clear that Congress is out of the woods yet.

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.

Mitch McConnell should be extremely frustrated

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. And many of them actually voted against the short-term bill to keep DHS open: they'd rather let the department shut down than pass any bill that doesn't attack the president's executive actions. (In fact, Republican opposition to the short-term bill was so strong that Democrats had to step in to get the bill passed.)

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 few 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.