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WASHINGTON — Congress returns this week with just days left to avert a partial Homeland Security shutdown.
Funding is set to expire Friday for the Department of Homeland Security unless lawmakers can move past their stalemate on immigration to pass a $40 billion spending bill for the agency.
Some members of Congress are hoping that a Feb. 16 federal court ruling temporarily delaying President Obama's executive orders on immigration might provide an escape from the legislative impasse.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of Texas temporarily blocked implementation of Obama's order to grant legal status to about 4 million undocumented immigrants and allow them to work legally in the United States for up to three years. Texas and 25 other states filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the president's actions. The administration is appealing the decision, which came just two days before DHS was set to begin accepting applications from immigrants wanting to take part in Obama's programs.
"Now we've got a perfect reason to not shut (DHS) down because the courts have decided, at least initially, in our favor," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said last week on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
The secretary of Homeland Security went on five Sunday shows to warn that national security will be at risk unless Congress agrees to fund the department.
"I'm hoping someone will exercise some leadership," Secretary Jeh Johnson said on CNN's State of the Union.
If the administration and congressional Republicans can't agree by a Friday deadline, Johnson said he will have to furlough about 30,000 employees — mostly office workers — while other front-line agents will have to work without paychecks.
Citing new terrorist threats against U.S. facilities, including shopping malls, Johnson said: "It's absurd that we're even having this conversation."
But even if funding expires, more than 80% of the department's 240,000-plus employees will still go to work because their jobs are deemed essential to the nation's safety. Those workers, however, will not get paid as they patrol the borders, check luggage for weapons at airports, respond to natural disasters or guard the president.
The huge department includes Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service and the Coast Guard.
"If Congress forces a shutdown of the department, front-line personnel will be asked to continue to work without pay," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "That includes 40,000 Customs and Border Protection officers needed to keep our borders secure."
Congress would have to decide whether Homeland Security employees would get retroactive pay after any shutdown. Federal workers received back pay after the 2013 government shutdown, but federal contractors did not.
Lawmakers are fighting over immigration amendments that the House attached to the DHS funding bill it approved last month. Those amendments would bar any federal funds from being used to carry out Obama's executive orders to protect about 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to work legally in the USA.
The amendments also would end a current Obama administration program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — that gives temporary legal status and work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Senate Democrats, independents and Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada united on three separate votes to block the House-passed bill from advancing in the Senate because they objected to the immigration provisions.
One option being considered to end the stalemate is for Congress to quickly pass another continuing resolution to keep DHS funded for the next few weeks or months and leave it to the courts to decide the fate of Obama's immigration actions. The department has already been operating under a continuing resolution since December.
While the showdown over Homeland Security funding will dominate Congress this week, lawmakers also could confront a complicated and divisive debate as early as this week on Obama's recent request for an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to combat the Islamic State.
Republicans would like to see fewer constraints placed on where and how troops can be deployed in the president's initial AUMF draft, while Democrats would like clearer timelines and limitations on ground troops. Bridging that gap is a huge undertaking, particularly as the White House maintains it already has the legal authority to conduct ongoing operations in Syria and Iraq to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
Republicans are also still grappling with blowback from Boehner's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give a March 3 joint address to Congress. Boehner did not consult the White House before issuing the invitation, angering the president and congressional Democrats.
The speech comes just two weeks before Israeli elections, and Netanyahu has been at odds with the Obama administration over its negotiations with Iran to end its nuclear program. A number of Democratic senators have announced they will not attend the speech.