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Homeland Security standoff: The Republican risk

Homeland Security
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Republican congressional leaders once again confront their core problem: taming a conservative base unwilling to recognize limits on its popularity and power.

This time, the issue is funding for the federal Department of Homeland Security. Republican lawmakers have withheld it as a pressure tactic in hopes of reversing President Barack Obama's recent immigration order. Since no politician can long tolerate a shutdown of the government agency protecting American soil, conservative firebrands reason, Democrats and Obama will ultimately have to give in.

The problem with this strategy is that, to the contrary, Democrats do not have to give in. Republicans do, and the only question is how much political damage they suffer before that happens.

In this way, the Homeland Security fight resembles earlier confrontations over spending cuts in 2011 and Obamacare in 2013. In the former, conservatives blocked an increase in the federal debt limit, which led to the first-ever downgrade of America's credit rating. In the latter, they refused to fund the government, triggering a shutdown.

Two common threads link all three confrontations.

First is the quest to impose an outcome that conservatives lack the constitutional clout to impose. The first two times, Democrats controlled the Senate and the White House.

Now they have only the White House, but that's enough for Obama to prevail on immigration using his veto pen. One additional Democratic advantage: fear among Republican political strategists of further alienating the fast-growing Hispanic constituency in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

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Second is the use of an unsustainable tactic to achieve those outcomes. Americans want their security agency to remain on the job, just as they want sound and stable credit markets and a functioning federal government. As the party explicitly making those basic functions hostage to other objectives, Republicans rather than Democrats suffer the political blame if they're impeded.

What makes the current standoff riskier for Republicans is that they control both houses of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have vowed to prevent further debt crises or government shutdowns to show the nation their party can govern responsibly.

That matters to the eventual Republican presidential nominee as well as to the party's attempt to hold Congress in 2016. Polls have consistently shown Republicans with a poorer national image than Democrats in recent years. That matters most in the heavier voter turnouts that occurs during elections for the White House.

All of which explains why McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders surrendered on tying Homeland Security funding to reversal of Obama's immigration order. Republican Whip John Cornyn noted that the federal judiciary—which does have the constitutional ability to block Obama—has already done so at least temporarily through a federal judge's ruling against the White House.

Read MoreGOP considers short-term Homeland Security funding

Whether Boehner can persuade House Republicans to accept that small victory for now and avoid a Homeland Security shutdown is unclear. His caucus was meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the matter.

Privately, GOP lawmakers and aides concede that has to happen one way or another. The longer it takes, the less secure Republican political prospects will be.