Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returns to his office on Capitol Hill, on Jan. 29, 2015

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returns to his office on Capitol Hill, on Jan. 29, 2015 J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Real Implications of a Homeland Security Shutdown

Democrats cite the elevated national security risk of a Department of Homeland Security shutdown showdown with Republicans.

Senate Republicans promised to take up funding the Homeland Security Department next week, but the path to reach a passable appropriations measure remains unclear with less than one month until the agency will be forced to shut down.

Nearly the entire Democratic caucus in the Senate signed a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., calling for a “clean” DHS funding bill, without any policy riders aimed at blocking President Obama’s executive action on immigration. Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was the only member of the caucus not to sign the letter, but he too has expressed his support for a clean bill.

“In light of recent events in Paris, Ottawa and Australia, the threat of ISIS and the proliferation of foreign fighters that return home radicalized, DHS funding should not be tied to divisive political issues that could jeopardize this critical funding,” the senators wrote in the letter. “We should not cast doubt on future funding for the Department of Homeland Security at a time when the entire nation should be marshalling collective resources to defend against terrorism.”

(Read More: The US Doesn't Know How Secure Its Border Is)

The continuing resolution currently funding DHS is set to expire Feb. 27, as the agency was the lone carve out of an omnibus appropriations bill passed in December that funded the rest of government through September. The senators said in their letter that more short-term spending measures should be “off the table,” as such bills inhibit DHS’ ability to plan for the future and launch new initiatives. 

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., ranking member of the Senate subpanel that oversees DHS appropriations, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., introduced a bill Tuesday night to fund the agency through fiscal 2015, which ends Sept. 30. The measure would provide a spending level negotiated by both parties last month, the lawmakers said, and is free of any new immigration policy directives.

About 86% of DHS employees reported to work during the governmentwide shutdown in 2013.

The House has already passed a DHS funding bill that included language to block Obama’s effort to defer deportation for certain immigrants; the White House has said it would veto that version if it reached Obama’s desk. McConnell on Tuesday said the Senate would take up the issue next week, but did not reveal his plans on which version of the bill he will pursue. Should he seek to pass the House measure, he is unlikely to find the 60 votes necessary to proceed, with a Democratic caucus united against it.

Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday railed against anything but a clean spending bill, saying Republicans were risking a partial government shutdown. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said allowing a DHS shutdown would be “the height of irresponsibility.”

“The only way to prevent this important government agency from shutting down,” Schumer said from the Senate floor Wednesday, “is for Congress to pass legislation to fund the department and to do it quickly.”

(Related: Homeland Security To Roll Out Biometrics Along the Border This Summer)

If Congress fails to do so by the end of February, very little of DHS would actually shut down. Because shutdown precedent allows for employees whose salaries are paid for by non-appropriated funds, as well as those who perform “emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property” to remain on the job, about 86 percent of DHS employees reported to work during the governmentwide shutdown in 2013.

Daily operations would certainly be affected, but DHS is perhaps the best positioned agency in federal government to continue mission-critical work during an appropriations lapse. That has emboldened some Republicans to stick with their strategy.

“It’s not the end of the world if we get to that time because the national security functions will not stop -- whether it’s border security or a lot of other issues,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., told Politico on Tuesday.  He added, however, “I think we should always aspire to try to get it done.”

Reid said he found that logic troubling.