Web Video: Why Senate and House Republicans are split over a Homeland Security bill

Feb. 26, 2015 AT 10:56 a.m. EST

With just days before the deadline to fund Homeland Security, it’s congressional Republicans who are divided over blocking President Obama’s immigration reform efforts and avoiding a shutdown. Political editor Lisa Desjardins joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the political battles at the Capitol.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Congress now has just three days left to pass a budget for the Department of Homeland Security, but it hasn’t agreed exactly on how to get there. The agency’s funding has been caught up in a wider debate over President Obama’s use of executive action to change immigration law.

The disagreement has made for a rare, but clear split among Republicans leaders in the House and the Senate.

Political editor Lisa Desjardins has the story.

LISA DESJARDINS: This shutdown split, for Republicans, is a question of priorities. Everyone agrees the Department of Homeland Security must be funded. And Republicans in general all oppose the president’s executive actions to protect more undocumented immigrants.

But House Republicans say the immigration issue is priority. They voted to fund Homeland Security, but only with a block of the president’s policies attached. But that bill has died in the Senate, where Senate Republicans are prioritizing Homeland Security with a bill that does nothing but fund the agency.

It is a back and forth with an agency in the middle. Today, Speaker Boehner pointed back to the Republican-led Senate.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House : I’m waiting for the Senate to act. The House has done its job to fund the Department of Homeland Security and to stop the president’s overreach on immigration. And we’re waiting for the Senate to do their job.

LISA DESJARDINS: And the Senate responded within hours, voting overwhelmingly to start debating its no-strings-attached funding bill.

MAN: On this, the yeas are 98, the nays are two.

LISA DESJARDINS: In the halls of the Capitol, it is a fight among conservatives.

Alabama’s Mo Brooks is determined and defiant on immigration.

REP. MO BROOKS, (R) Alabama: I am not going to vote for any legislation, whether it be long-term or short-term, that supports illegal and unconstitutional conduct. And so I don’t know what the speaker’s plan is going forward, but I can tell you what my position is. And my position is — and I think that there are a substantial number of Republicans in the House of Representatives who would agree — that the United States Constitution comes first.

LISA DESJARDINS: But Representative John Carter of Texas worries about Border Patrol agents.

REP. JOHN CARTER, (R) Texas: I want to make sure that those guys down in the Carrizo cane down in South Texas, where drug dealers cross everyday with — carrying heavy, heavy firearms, those guys are getting a paycheck.

LISA DESJARDINS: This policy debate over immigration and the Department of Homeland Security, of course, has very political underpinnings. Right now, I’m standing just a few feet away from the House chamber.

But if I step aside and you look over my shoulder, you can see the long hallway that leads to the U.S. Senate. It’s about 600 feet between the two chambers, just two football fields in length. But for Republicans this week, that difference has never been greater. And it has everything to do with the different political problems for Republicans in the House and the Senate.

STAN COLLENDER, Policy Analyst: Following the 2010 census, the GOP made congressional districts that they have control over in various states more Republican, not only more Republican, but more conservative.

LISA DESJARDINS: Stan Collender is a policy analyst and strategist for Qorvis Communications. He says while the House swept with more conservative districts, Senate Republicans won their majority by winning overall in purple states with moderate votes, like North Carolina and Iowa.

STAN COLLENDER: If they go too far to the right, that is, if Republican senators do try to duplicate what the Republican House members try to do, it will hurt politically.

LISA DESJARDINS: This is what’s fueling the GOP divide. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell has a thin majority with 54 seats. If he loses four seats, the Senate is tied. Problem is, next year, McConnell has seven seats that could be vulnerable.

Now look at Speaker Boehner’s situation in the House. He has a wide majority, 57 seats more than Democrats. Republicans could lose all of their vulnerable members and still keep the House. A bigger issue there is finding agreement. Boehner has some 20 to 60 conservatives calling for tough, no-compromise stances. That makes any vote difficult. And add to that some conservatives regularly question if Boehner should be speaker.

Result? For now, Boehner is not taking a firm position either way.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I don’t know what the Senate’s capable of passing. And until I see what they’re going to pass, no decision’s been made on the House side.

LISA DESJARDINS: Which is precisely the problem for Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

JEH JOHNSON, Secretary of Homeland Security: There are concrete, dramatic consequences for the homeland security of this nation if we allow the funding of the department to lapse.

GWEN IFILL: Lisa joins me now from U.S. Capitol

So, Lisa, if this passed 98-2 in the Senate, what’s the real holdup in the House?

LISA DESJARDINS: Right, an overwhelming vote in the Senate.

I think, Gwen, it comes down to the fact that, among conservatives, the Houses has more conservatives and those folks are in fact more conservative themselves. It’s just a more conservative body in the House, and they are approaching this immigration issue with kind of tougher stances, digging in farther than the Senate.

Also, Gwen, I would like to mention, I think the two bodies just operate differently. They always have, and what we’re seeing here is that Republicans have yet to fully synch up. They are in charge in both bodies, but they haven’t yet figured out how to make the machinery work while they’re in charge.

GWEN IFILL: So is there a plan to get through this? Is there an endgame, or is it going to come to another standoff like we have seen before?

LISA DESJARDINS: There is not an endgame yet officially, but reading the tea leaves, Gwen, talking to sources up here on the Hill, it looks like what will likely happen is some time tomorrow we could see the Senate move forward with perhaps a final vote on its funding plan. That, of course, depends on maybe, will there be objections from Ted Cruz or from Jeff Sessions and others?

But likely a Senate vote some time tomorrow night — then, if that moves to the House, that would be a funding bill without any strings attached — the pressure is on the House. Are they ready to shut down government over this — or, rather, shut down Homeland Security over this issue? They know that a shutdown really is not the right word, that in fact most of Homeland Security will stay operating, and just in fact Homeland Security officers will not get paid immediately.

They’re trying to figure out what the tradeoff is there. How much will they get blamed for such a problem? And, in fact, Gwen, it looks like a lot of talk right now means we could be here this weekend working out this problem. Perhaps there’s a partial shutdown of a day or two for Homeland Security, technically, but already in Congress’ mind, it’s Monday that matters, when Homeland Security work force in bulk would go back to work.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Lisa, so here’s a theory. We saw Jeh Johnson, the Department of Homeland Security secretary, just now in your piece, but we also know he came out today. Standing beside him were two former Republican DHS secretaries, Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge, who called the plan to try to hold — I think the word that Chertoff used was hostage, holding it hostage, and the term that Tom Ridge used was folly.

They disagree with the president on his overreach, as they called it, in executive power, but they don’t think this is the right way to speak to that. Is that the strategy? Is that a persuasive argument for these very conservative Republicans who just disagree with the president on this?

LISA DESJARDINS: This is a theory that’s out here, put pressure on Republicans from Republicans.

But, Gwen, honestly, I don’t think that pressure is working yet on the House. That is certainly something that the Senate is responding to. That’s why we saw such a big vote today to move along, let’s get this agency funded. But in the House, the priorities are different, as we said in the story. They are concerned about this immigration action and there are conservatives there that say they don’t want anything else to happen until immigration is dealt with.

One other note, Gwen. I think that this is a sign of more things to come. While this immigration showdown could be resolved within a few days, there are many more cliffs, showdowns like this ahead. We will see if Republicans can get on the same page several more times this summer.

GWEN IFILL: Lisa Desjardins watching it all unfold up on Capitol Hill, thank you.



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