WASHINGTON — A political brawl over funding the Department of Homeland Security is troubling local officials in Maryland who rely on millions of dollars in agency grants for firefighter gear, emergency planning and training.
The dispute, which could force hundreds of customs agents at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the port of Baltimore to work without pay, threatens to disrupt several grant programs popular with local fire departments.
"In rural America there are some very small departments that can barely afford to keep the lights on and the fuel in the tank," said David Lewis, a member of the Odenton Volunteer Fire Company and a past president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association. "With decreases in local funding, they look more and more to grant funding."
Less than two years after Congress allowed agencies to shut down amid partisan legislative gridlock, lawmakers are once again engaged in a budget fight that threatens to furlough thousands of federal workers and curtail government services.
Republicans are attempting to use a $37.9 billion Homeland Security funding bill to block President Barack Obama's recent decision to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Democrats are opposing that effort and calling on the GOP to pass a bill free of immigration language.
Funding for the Homeland Security Department is set to run out Feb. 27, four days after lawmakers return from a weeklong recess.
The impact of a short-term shutdown, particularly in Maryland, would be limited. About 85 percent of department employees — including airport screeners, customs officials and border protection agents — would continue to work through a closing, though they would not be paid.
But local officials are concerned about several grant programs, including those used by fire departments to pay for training and protective gear. One program provided more than $9 million to firehouses in Maryland last year, including $2.3 million in Towson and $2.9 million in Millersville, Homeland Security data show.
The Assistance to Firefighters Grants are expected to be awarded next month. The timing of the awards would be in question if the Homeland Security Department shuts down.
Officials in Baltimore said the city receives about $720,000 in Homeland Security funding each year — money that pays for search-and-rescue teams, public health efforts, emergency planners and even building evacuation equipment such as exit signs and public address systems.
That's on top of a $5.5 million Urban Areas Security Initiative grant that Baltimore shares with neighboring jurisdictions to pay for regional emergency planning.
"It is incredibly frustrating that partisan gridlock could prevent critical funding for public safety," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat. "Baltimore, like many other major cities across the country, has a lot at stake, and I'm hopeful Congress will put partisanship aside and do the right thing," she said.
City officials acknowledge that much of the grant funding needed for this year has already been paid out, suggesting that a short-term shutdown would probably not have significant consequences.
A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan declined to discuss the potential impact on state emergency operations.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said Friday that it was "time for Republicans to stop playing partisan games with our national security."
"Republicans in both the House and Senate continue to be mired in division and are placing our nation's security at risk," said Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.
Republicans say it is Democrats who are threatening to shut the Homeland Security Department by defending Obama's executive actions on immigration, though the back-and-forth has also re-exposed squabbles within the GOP, which has controlled both chambers of Congress since last month,
"We won the fight to fund the Department of Homeland Security and to stop the president's unconstitutional actions," House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Thursday. "Now it's time for the Senate to do their work."
Politically, the debate is shaping up as an important test for Republican leaders, who don't want to be blamed for a shutdown but who also don't want to be seen as caving in on an immigration policy that many conservatives strongly oppose.
Unlike the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013, which stemmed from a partisan squabble over Obama's health care law, the closing of a single agency probably would not pose a significant economic hardship on the state.
The Department of Homeland Security employs about 3,500 workers in Maryland, nearly 14,000 in Virginia and about 18,000 in the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. (It is unclear how many of the DHS employees in Washington and Virginia live in Maryland.)
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told lawmakers this week that a shutdown would result in about 30,000 furloughs. Another 200,000 would stay on the job without pay; in past shutdowns, Congress has voted to reimburse such workers retroactively.
J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, questioned the wisdom of forcing airport screeners and border agents to work without pay.
The AFGE represents Transportation Security Administration workers and other Homeland Security employees, including in Maryland.
"These people have to be laser-focused on what they're doing," Cox said. "They're on the border. They're armed. They're dealing with life-or-death situations."
Cox said he worries about long-term effects of another shutdown on government-wide recruitment. "How do you hire the best and the brightest if people don't know, if they get hired, whether they're going to get paid?"
Some lawmakers, including Republicans, have suggested passing a short-term funding bill that does not include the immigration language and avoids a shutdown, at least for a few weeks.
A short-term bill, a favorite escape hatch for Congress, is exactly how lawmakers wound up in their current position. The House and Senate agreed last year to fund most of the federal government through September, but provided money for Homeland Security only through February as the GOP considered ways to block the immigration orders.
Obama unveiled a series of steps in November to ease enforcement against some undocumented immigrants. They included moves that would allow some parents of U.S. citizens to defer the threat of deportation for three years and apply for work permits.
The Obama administration is also expanding a 2012 program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that allows immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday to apply for relief. The program, also known as DACA, initially applied to those who entered by June 2007; the latest effort moves the cutoff date to January 2010.
About 55,000 adults in Maryland might be eligible to apply for the parental program, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. Five thousand children could be eligible for the DACA expansion.
Officials plan to start accepting applications for DACA on Wednesday. The program would likely continue under a shutdown because it is funded through a $465 application fee, not taxpayer money.
Lorella Praeli is advocacy and policy director for United We Dream, a group that seeks protections for people who are brought to the United States illegally as children and their families. She is concerned about a less obvious potential effect of the debate over Homeland Security: the possibility that it will cause confusion and fear among immigrants who might consider applying.
So far, she said, clinics to help people prepare applications have been well attended. But there is the possibility that some eligible immigrants will wait to see how the Capitol Hill showdown shakes out before submitting their names and addresses to the federal government.
"If people don't come forward because there's so much confusion and fear, then the program doesn't succeed," Praeli said.
"The best way to protect the program," she said, "is to have millions of people coming forward to apply."