By Kevin Diaz
In the opening salvo of a new battle over the southern border, the Republican-led House voted 236-191 Wednesday to fund most of the Department of Homeland Security - minus money for the Obama administration's executive order on immigration.
But in the face of a White House veto threat, and likely resistance in the Senate, the bill's hard-line immigration measures still face an uncertain future.
Money for the Department of Homeland Security, which combats terrorism and enforces the nation's immigration laws, runs out Feb. 28. That leaves President Barack Obama and Republican leaders six weeks to work out a deal on immigration or risk the shutdown of a critical government agency - a prospect leaders in both parties have all but ruled out.
"There's never a good time to muck around with the funding of the Department of Homeland Security," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "But given the events of the last week (in France), this seems like a particularly bad time to do so."
Senate GOP leaders also have signaled a reluctance to hold hostage an integral part of the nation's security apparatus in a fight over Obama's unilateral immigration policies, however unconstitutional Obama critics say they may be.
"A targeted way to try to address and defund that implementation of his unconstitutional executive action is something I think we need to do," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate Majority Whip, appearing Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "But we're not going to take any chances with the homeland."
That view has put Cornyn and other GOP leaders at odds with Republican hard-liners, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who want an immediate halt to executive actions they say amount to an illegal "amnesty" for some 5 million immigrants who would be protected from deportation.
"It now falls to the Senate to take up the House bill, preserving those key provisions, and send it to the president, fulfilling our promise to the American people that we will put a stop to President Obama's unconstitutional actions," Cruz said.
Among the most contentious House provisions - championed by Cruz and other Texas Republicans - is a measure that would roll back Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Known as DACA, the program delays deportations of immigrants brought into the country illegally as children.
In a sign of the political peril of targeting so-called Dreamers - youths and students - 26 Republicans voted against an amendment ending the 2012 DACA program.
Altogether, 10 Republicans joined all but two Democrats in voting against the final bill. None of the dissenting GOP votes came from Texas Republicans.
One of the new Texas Republicans in Congress, Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio, cast his vote in terms of protecting American workers and fostering economic growth. Hurd, the Lone Star State's first black Republican in Congress, said in an interview last week that he was comfortable backing the GOP legislation even though he represents a heavily Hispanic swing district on the Mexican border.
"I've been talking a certain narrative for the last 20 months," Hurd said. "That's why the 'black guy' got elected in a Hispanic district, because I was right on this issue."
Other Republicans in the Texas delegation emphasized the need to check what they see as an abuse of Obama's executive power.
"This is more than simply about immigration," said Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands. "It's about restoring important checks and balances in our Constitution."
Threat to security
Administration officials have defended the president's actions as a needed fix for a broken immigration system that has languished unaddressed in a divided Congress. They've also argued that the president's actions merely set enforcement priorities for a population of unauthorized immigrants that is estimated at upwards of 12 million.
But in the face of a GOP bid to tie immigration debate to funding for Homeland Security, the White House's greatest leverage has been the threat to border and national security.
"I can't stress enough how important it is to have a stable, secure and final one-year budget," said the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, R. Gil Kerlikowske.
Some Texas Democrats echoed the sentiment of White House adviser Cecilia Muñoz, who called the House vote "political theater" that would not advance in the Senate. Democrats still have enough votes in the upper chamber to filibuster GOP legislation.
Houston Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee noted that the Senate has previously passed bipartisan reform legislation, and is unlikely to pass a House bill loaded up with polarizing immigration measures.
"It's a sad day when, in light of the dangerous times we live in, that we play politics with poison pill amendments, none of which have a chance in the Senate," she said.
The latest immigration showdown has been brewing since December, when the last Congress passed a $1.1 trillion annual spending bill funding all of the federal government except the Department of Homeland Security. Under pressure from immigration hard-liners, the department's funding was limited to the end of February, giving Republicans another chance to challenge Obama's Nov. 20 immigration order.
Besides defunding Obama's initiative, the House bill also would block a White House edict limiting deportations of people held by local police unless they have convictions for serious crimes.
Only one part of the bill garnered significant bipartisan support: an amendment mandating that domestic violence, sexual abuse, child molestation and exploitation be treated as high priority crimes requiring deportation.
That could be a rare area of agreement in the Senate.
In all, 35 House Democrats supported that provision, including Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, a centrist who has supported some GOP immigration bills in the past.
The House bill included a Cuellar measure calling for a review of Customs and Border Protection officer training. He also inserted a provision calling for the federal government to reimburse state and local authorities for the costs of providing care, transportation, and humanitarian relief to undocumented immigrants, including last summer's influx of unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley.
But in the end, Cuellar joined all the other Texas Democrats in voting against the bill.
"My hope is that we will have the opportunity to vote on a clean Homeland Security appropriations bill that serves our border communities and strengthens the middle class," he said, "without the anti-immigration amendments."