Texas lawmakers: Toying with DHS funding a risky game
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Texas lawmakers: Toying with DHS funding a risky game

If Congress fails to fund the Department of Homeland Security beyond next week, it will not only tell the world that the U.S. government can’t get its act together, but also signal to transnational gangs that the southern border is easy pickings.

Those are the assessments of key Texas lawmakers in the middle of a congressional gridlock that threatens to let DHS funding run out. The agency includes the Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Coast Guard, Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and a host of other agencies.

The U.S. House passed a bill to keep the agency funded past this month. But it attached a measure defunding President Obama’s executive order on immigration that would grant as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants a reprieve from deportation and a work permit.

Senate Democrats have blocked the bill from coming to a floor vote and indicated they'll keep doing so until the immigration language is stripped.

“The terrorists are watching and the drug cartels are watching, and anytime we play politics with funding a national security agency, it’s a dangerous game to play,” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, told The Texas Tribune. “It’s a sign of weakness in our government.”

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen halted the president's immigration order in response to a Texas lawsuit. Part of the immigration plan scheduled to begin on Wednesday has been placed on hold. But the ruling hasn’t thawed tension in Washington.

McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the ruling has galvanized Republicans intent on standing their ground.

“The fact that you got a federal judge saying it’s unlawful gives us more momentum,” he said. “Now we’ve done our job in the House, and it’s up to the Senate to act and we’ll see what they end up doing.”

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Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Washington on Monday.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said that if the agency isn’t funded, the border will be weakened, but not thrown wide open. Border Patrol agents would still patrol, and CBP officers would staff the ports of entry, but not at maximum levels, he said.

“In reality, about 85 percent of them are going to continue working,” he said. “In Laredo, it’s more like 90 percent are going to continue working.”

There are currently about 18,150 Border Patrol agents on the southwest border, including about 3,065 and 1,785 in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo sectors, respectively. There are about 2,530 and 1,540 in the El Paso and Del Rio sectors, according to CBP statistics.

But Cuellar, the former ranking member on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, said agents wouldn’t get paid until the stalemate is resolved.

“They all get paid at the end, but it’s a very bad message to send to the employees of homeland and the American public,” he said. “One of the basic responsibilities of Congress is to pass a budget.”

A spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Though both parties have yet to blink, a recent poll shows that Republicans would receive most of the blame if DHS partially suspended its operations.

About 53 percent of Americans would blame Republicans in Congress for a shutdown, according to a CNN poll published Wednesday. About 30 percent would blame the president, and 13 percent would blame both.

But Texas Republicans remain undeterred. On Wednesday in Austin, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said it’s up to his Democratic colleagues to act.

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“Right now, Senate Democrats are filibustering to try to kill funding for the Department of Homeland Security in order to hold DHS hostage and force the president’s executive amnesty program onto the American people,” he said. “That amnesty program has now been declared illegal by a federal court, so Senate Democrats should look very closely at this opinion and decide if they are willing to jeopardize national security.”

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Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune

Border Patrol officers outside a bus in Presidio, Texas.