WASHINGTON (CNN) — Congress is scrambling to meet a midnight deadline to keep the Department of Homeland Security — and all the border agents, TSA screeners and federal workers that come with it — running amid a heated immigration debate.
House leaders are planning to vote Friday night on a bill that would keep the agency funded for one week. The Senate has already agreed to a similar measure so if it clears the House, it would head to President Barack Obama for his approval.
Unless a deal is reached by midnight, DHS will fall into a partial shutdown, furloughing thousands of federal workers while leaving others — including border agents and TSA screeners — on the job without pay until Congress gets its act together.
Earlier in the day, the House blocked a bill that would have kept DHS open for three more weeks. That vote was a shocking twist to a dramatic day on Capitol Hill.
For most of Friday, lawmakers seemed poised to avoid a nail-biter showdown. The House cleared a procedural hurdle earlier in the day, indicating that final passage of the bill shouldn’t be in doubt.
But when the legislation came to the floor, dozens of Republicans voted no because it doesn’t address President Barack Obama’s immigration orders. They were joined by nearly all Democrats, who opposed the measure because it doesn’t keep DHS open through the end of the fiscal year.
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Arkansas, who is close to House leadership, described House Speaker John Boehner’s situation as like a “vice.”
‘Hell of a position’
“It’s a hell of a position to be in,” Womack said Friday evening. “I just can’t imagine the frustration the speaker must have now.”
As the midnight deadline neared, Obama met with DHS secretary Jeh Johnson and Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan in the Oval Office on Friday evening. He also called Democratic leaders in Congress.
Johnson, meanwhile, spent much of Friday in Congress reaching out to lawmakers.
Two senior house Republican sources tell CNN there has been a serious concern among those close to the speaker that if he allowed a vote on a clean DHS funding bill, conservatives would make a motion to vacate the chair, a direct challenge to his job.
Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent acknowledged to reporters he is also hearing about conservatives using the fight over this DHS bill to try to remove Boehner.
“Right now, we have to get serious,” he said. “I think a lot of people better get serious about governing and it’s time for all of these, you know, DC games to end. I mean all these palace coups or whatever the hell is going on around here has to end, and we have to get down to the business of governing.”
The battle over DHS funding comes more than 16 months after political chaos tipped the entire government into a shutdown. Republicans bore the brunt of the public’s blame for that episode and polls indicate the party could be in for a sequel.
A CNN poll last week found 53% of Americans would blame Republicans in Congress if the department shuts down, while 30% would blame Obama. Another 13% said both would deserve the blame.
The temporary 3-week funding bill failed 203-224. Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told members to stay close to the Capitol Friday night and through the weekend as GOP leadership considers next move.
Boehner has been here before — wedged between his hard-right flank and the Senate. House conservatives want to continue fighting to block Obama’s actions on immigration and want to go to conference to work out differences between the House GOP bill and the Senate Bill passed bill earlier Friday.
Implications for Boehner
How he handles the showdown could dictate the rest of his speakership, as House conservatives warn compromising now means he’s effectively allowing Democrats to block GOP agenda for the next two years. Doing something that angers his right flank could again raise questions about his ability to lead the Republican conference.
The Senate approved a longer-term funding bill Friday even though it wasn’t expected to go anywhere in the House. On a 68-31 bipartisan vote, the Senate cleared a so-called “clean” DHS bill, after stripping of provisions opposed by Democrats that would have blocked Obama’s immigration orders.
Even as he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deployed completely different strategies to address the impending funding lapse, Boehner insisted the GOP is on the same page.
“It is not a fight amongst Republicans. All Republicans agree we want to fund the Department of Homeland Security and we want to stop the President’s executive action with regard to immigration,” he said.
Some Senate Republicans are urging the House to point to the recent ruling by a Texas judge to suspend the administration’s program to process visas for those wanting to remain in the country.
“The courts have acted. Accept the victor that the courts have given us, which is the President does not have the authority to do what he has done and vote to continue to fund the Department of Homeland Security. I think that is the right decision,” Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyoming, said on CNN on Thursday.
Some conservatives have said they don’t feel any pressure to fund the agency before the deadline because most workers would still be required to come to work. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, told CNN that employees at the agency just got paid last week so there is enough time to debate the issue before they need to approve continued funding, even on a short term basis.
Johnson dismissed that notion and told reporters in between his visits with members, “that minimizes the impact of forcing people to work without a paycheck” and said he continues to press for “full funding.”
Despite Boehner’s efforts to keep the pressure on the Senate, the focus is squarely on him and how he balances pressure from those on the right who oppose any compromise, and other members who want to avoid being tagged with the blame for another shutdown at a time the GOP is proving it can govern.
When asked if he was concerned about his leadership role, an unfazed Boehner brushed off the question, saying, “No. Heaven sakes, no. Not at all.”