Divided Republicans are searching for a way out of an impasse over immigration that is threatening to shut down the Homeland Security Department within days.
With the agency's budget set to expire Friday at midnight without action by Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Monday he would split language overturning President Barack Obama's contested immigration measures from the department's funding bill.
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The move seemed aimed at pressuring Senate Democrats who have opposed the legislation because the immigration language is included. It also would allow Republicans who oppose Obama's executive actions on immigration to register their opposition with a stand-alone vote. But Senate Democrats were quick to point out it left unanswered the question of how to fund the Homeland Security Department.
"This proposal doesn't bring us any closer to actually funding DHS, and Republicans still have no real plan to achieve that goal," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
In the wake of a federal court's ruling last week saying Obama overstepped his authority, and putting his immigration programs on hold, a growing number of Senate Republicans argued for letting the immigration fight play out in court, and passing a "clean" bill to fund Homeland Security, free of the language on immigration.
"Leave it to the courts. I think we have an excellent case before the Supreme Court," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday night.
House conservatives, by contrast, said the court developments only strengthened their resolve to use the Homeland Security budget to fight Obama on immigration. They remained adamantly opposed to a funding bill that doesn't include language blocking Obama on immigration, and also said they would not support a short-term extension of current funding levels.
"If the decision from the court has done anything, it's reaffirmed that the House was right to do what it did," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., adding that now that Republicans have full control of Congress, they have the responsibility to stand firm against Obama.
"If we pass a clean DHS bill only, how would that result have been any different if the Democrats were still in charge of the Senate?" Mulvaney asked.
It was unclear whether McConnell would succeed in breaking the unity of Senate Democrats, who held together for a fourth time Monday night to block debate on the House bill that funds the Homeland Security Department through the Sept. 30 budget year, while also overturning Obama's moves granting work permits to millions in the U.S. illegally.
"It's another way to get the Senate unstuck from a Democrat filibuster and move the debate forward," McConnell said on the Senate floor after the vote to advance the House-passed bill failed 47-46, short of the 60 votes needed. Three previous attempts earlier in the month had yielded similar results.
McConnell's move came after Obama warned the nation's governors that states would feel the economic pain of a Homeland Security shutdown, with tens of thousands of workers in line to be furloughed if the agency shuts down at midnight Friday, and many more forced to work without pay.
"It will have a direct impact on your economy, and it will have a direct impact on America's national security," Obama told governors as they visited the White House as part of their annual conference.
Within hours of Republicans securing the Senate majority last November, McConnell vowed there would be no government shutdowns, but the immigration fight threatened to shut down the Homeland Security Department and undermine GOP promises that they would show the nation they could govern.
A Homeland Security shutdown would result in some 30,000 administrative and other workers getting furloughed. Some 200,000 others would fall into essential categories and stay on the job at agencies like the Border Patrol, Secret Service and Transportation Security Administration, though mostly without drawing a paycheck until the situation is resolved.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Charles Babington contributed to this report.