Is the White House claim that GOP's actions might blow up border security a bluff?

Last week, I remarked upon the unsatisfying reality that the Republicans in Congress have no good options available to them which would forestall the implementation of Obama’s executive action on immigration before 2015. While the calculation will change dramatically when Republicans take both chambers of Congress next year, the party’s present options are limited.

Anything that would lead to a government shutdown would be embraced by both Democrats and the president – they would like nothing more than to portray the GOP as irresponsible, and a government shutdown over immigration would do just that. Moreover, even if the Republicans could pass a budget resolution that immediately de-funded the agency responsible for the implementation of Obama’s order, the Department of Homeland Security (which was never going to happen), it would not have much of an effect. Most DHS personnel are deemed “essential,” and they would continue to serve and to implement Obama’s preferred immigration enforcement directives even amid a full or partial government shutdown.

On Thursday, The Hill confirmed this.

Eighty-five percent of DHS employees continued to work during last year’s 16-day shutdown because they were funded with mandatory funds or deemed “essential” to national security or public safety, according to figures the Congressional Research Service (CRS) tracked down for GOP lawmakers.

Only 15 percent of DHS employees were furloughed in last year’s shutdown, the CRS found. On top of that, some 90 percent of the department’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency key to implementing Obama’s executive action, continued operating.

Some rank-and-file Republicans are worried that Obama could declare all DHS workers “essential” and keep them on the job — then simply pay them once a funding deal is reached.

The GOP’s present plan is to pursue “Cromnibus,” a continuing budget resolution slash omnibus spending bill which only funds DHS until the end of February. At that point, House leadership says, they will be on firmer ground with a more robust Republican caucus in the House and control of the Senate, and they fully intend to pursue every option in their power to reverse Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

We will see if they make good on that promise, but the White House is already suggesting that the Republicans won’t be able to stop his executive order even then. According to The New York Times, the White House is trying to scare the GOP into backing off their effort to de-fund DHS because they claim it would seriously hinder border enforcement.

[P]eople have begun to wonder how much leverage this actually provides. Would Republicans be willing to shut down the department come March if they remain at odds with the administration? That would mean that Republicans, angry over new benefits for immigrants living in the country illegally, would respond by closing down the agency that provides border security to prevent more immigrants from entering illegally.

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said on Wednesday that he figured as much. “I would be surprised if Republicans take the position that they are going to withhold funding from border security, from people who are conducting criminal background checks, from other elements of our federal government that are critical to homeland security just in protest over the president taking an executive action,” he told reporters.

Wait one second. What are we missing?

Certainly, the de-funding of an agency leads to shortages and procurement problems. That’s essentially the design of a de-funding proposal. But, DHS personnel are either essential or they are not, and the White House cannot have it both ways. During the 2013 government shutdown, some border agents received only reduced paychecks, training programs for new agents ceased, and morale took a nosedive, but the border was not abandoned. Furthermore, Republicans are not aiming to de-fund DHS. They are planning to de-fund the implementation of one circumspect element of what that mammoth agency does and are only using the agency’s funding as leverage.

Even The Washington Post‘s liberal blogger Greg Sargent seems to confirm that a funding fight in the next year is the best chance Republicans have to preempt the implementation of Obama’s executive order.

Putting aside the political perils Republicans might face in shutting down the Department of Homeland Security — is that something Republicans really want to risk taking blame for? — this tactic may not even work in practical terms. What this means is that conservatives are probably right to argue that the only way to block this action through funding fights is to attach a “rider” de-authorizing or defunding it to the measure funding the government.

When Republicans embark on this strategy, it seems clear that the White House will seek to do what they did in the shutdown; maximize the amount of pain felt by average Americans. But the contention that the border will be all but abandoned in March if Cromnibus passes feels like a bluff.