February 27, 2015 / 12:34 AM / 3 years ago

Congress edges toward domestic security funding patch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the House of Representatives were planning to pursue on Friday a temporary funding bill to keep the lights on at the U.S. domestic security agency for three weeks, postponing the threat of a partial agency shutdown.

As the clock ticked toward a midnight Friday deadline for funding the Department of Homeland Security, lawmakers said a stop-gap extension would buy time to try to work out differences between the Republican-controlled House and the Senate.

But as this approach gained favor late on Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson sent a letter to congressional leaders in which he urged them to approve of a “clean,” full-year funding measure for the agency.

A temporary patch would mean more uncertainty for department employees ”and puts us back in the same position, on the brink of a shutdown just days from now,” he said in the letter, which was distributed by email by Democratic House leadership.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who has insisted on a full Homeland Security funding bill free of immigration reform restrictions that have caused weeks of delay, said on Thursday he would refuse to allow such negotiations with the House.

“It won’t happen,” Reid told a news conference.

It was also unclear if House Speaker John Boehner, facing disagreement among Republican factions, had the votes to win House passage of even a short-term extension. House Democratic leaders were urging their members to reject it, a party aide said.

“I think we’re going to get there,” Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas said of the stop-gap plan after a nearly two-hour meeting of House Republicans on Thursday evening.

He said House leaders would spend Thursday night counting votes and building support for the short-term extension.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Conservatives have demanded that Boehner stand firmly behind a House-passed $39.7 billion bill that would pay for Homeland Security operations, but that would also block funding for Democratic President Barack Obama’s recent executive orders lifting the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants.

“It’s an effort to punt, like Republicans like to do,” said Representative Raul Labrador, a conservative from Idaho, adding that he could not support the plan.

But some other, more moderate Republicans also said they were not happy with the idea of a temporary funding fix at last year’s funding level.

Republican efforts in the House and Senate to stop Obama’s immigration orders were likely to be voted upon on Friday too, but these were expected to be blocked by Senate Democrats.

The Senate, on a separate track, was moving toward passing on Friday a “clean” funding bill, through Sept. 30, that would drop the House’s contentious immigration restrictions.

But if all goes as planned, that measure would ultimately be replaced on Friday with the three-week spending bill.

If the dispute is not resolved by Friday at midnight, spending authority will be cut off for the agency that spearheads domestic counterterrorism efforts and secures U.S. borders, airports and coastal waters. The agency would be forced to furlough about 30,000 employees, or about 15 percent of its workforce. Nearly 200,000 workers, including airport and border security agents and Coast Guard personnel would stay on the job, but would not be paid until new funding is approved.

Senate Democrats have blocked debate on the House-passed bill four times, and Obama has threatened to veto any bill that includes the immigration restrictions.

A short-term funding extension would provide a temporary reprieve for Republicans who have struggled to satisfy conservative demands for a fight with Obama, while keeping open a key agency on the frontlines of counterterrorism operations.

Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Grant McCool and Lisa Shumaker

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