The Obama administration is warning states that the possible shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security would harm the nation’s ability to counter the extremist appeal of the Islamic State group within the U.S. and help communities struggling with an onslaught of winter snowstorms.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said if Congress fails to agree to a new budget for his department by the end of Friday, inaction by lawmakers would lead to staff furloughs that could harm the U.S. response to terrorist threats and warnings, such as the one late Saturday that names Minnesota’s Mall of America.
He estimated that up to 30,000 DHS workers would need to be furloughed, including up to 80 percent of Federal Emergency Management Agency workers even as that agency contends with two months of devastating snowfall and cold from New England to the Mountain States.
“If we are going to shut down, we are greatly compromised,” Johnson said during a briefing at the National Governors Association, an annual gathering attended by dozens of the nation’s governors.
Congress was returning to work on Monday, just days before funding for DHS’ $40 billion budget ends. Lawmakers have until the end of the week to approve the budget and avoid shutting down the department, but no clear solution is in sight.
“The House has acted to fund the Homeland Security Department,” Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said in an email on Sunday. “Now it’s time for Senate Democrats to stop blocking legislation that would do the same.”
A House-passed bill would cover the department through Sept. 30 and overturn President Barack Obama’s executive action to limit deportations for millions of immigrants in the United States illegally. But Senate Democrats are preventing a vote on a similar Senate measure.
The issue was further complicated last week when a federal district court judge in Texas temporarily blocked the administration’s plans to protect immigrant parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents from deportation. The decision came as part of a lawsuit filed by 26 states arguing that the president had overstepped his authority in taking the executive action. Johnson said the administration will appeal the ruling.
During a meeting with governors, Johnson was pressed by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican and former top DHS official under President George W. Bush, on whether the administration would seek to “resolve this disagreement on policy” regarding the immigration executive actions.
Johnson said Congress should debate the immigration dispute but said lawmakers should not “tie that to the entire budget” of his department.
Two prominent Republican senators agreed with Johnson. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Arizona’s John McCain said on Sunday they would oppose such a linkage. Graham said he was “willing and ready to pass a DHS funding bill and let this play out in court.”
Of Homeland Security’s approximately 230,000 employees, some 200,000 of them would keep working even if Congress fails to fund their agency. They would receive no pay, however, until Congress authorizes funding.
“You should not be defunding the agency that is in charge of protecting the homeland. What kind of message does that send?” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, where more than 17,000 DHS employees live.
The DHS funding dispute has parallels to the 16-day government-wide shutdown in the fall of 2013, when national parks and monuments closed but essential government functions kept running, albeit sometimes on reduced staff.
Johnson linked the purported Mall of America warning from the Africa-based al-Shabab terror group and other recent terror alerts to what he described as a “new phase” of challenges by extremist groups abroad that have used alarming Internet videos and social media to gain adherents in the U.S. and potentially prod some to action.
He said the U.S. and foreign allies have made progress in tracking thousands of Americans and Europeans who have streamed abroad to join IS and other militant fighters inside Syria. But he said Western countries still need to build better systems to track individuals under suspicion of backing IS and other groups.
Graham spoke on ABC’s “This Week”; McCain spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and Johnson appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” ABC’s “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” ”Fox News Sunday” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”