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House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio responds to reporters about the impasse over passing the Homeland Security budget because of Republican efforts to block President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, Feb. 26, 2015, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio responds to reporters about the impasse over passing the Homeland Security budget because of Republican efforts to block President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, Feb. 26, 2015, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Associated Press)

With only hours remaining before the Department of Homeland Security runs out of money, Republican House leaders on Thursday floated a way to avoid a shutdown but extend debate over President Barack Obama's far-reaching immigration policy changes.

The standoff, reminiscent of the budget showdown that led the government to shutter agencies in 2013, threatened to furlough tens of thousands of federal employees and force even more to show up to work on Saturday — including at places like BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport — with no guarantee of pay.

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After huddling out of sight on Capitol Hill for much of the day, Republican leaders late Thursday proposed a three-week funding measure to avoid a shutdown at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and give lawmakers some additional breathing room to negotiate a way out of the impasse.

"When we make decisions, I'll let you know," House Speaker John Boehner said after blowing kisses to reporters who asked about the chamber's next move. "When the Senate does its work, we'll let you know how we're going to proceed."

Conservatives are using the department's funding to take a stand against a series of executive actions Obama announced last fall to defer deportation for millions of immigrants in the country illegally. A federal district judge struck down the actions on procedural grounds this month, and the White House has appealed.

Democrats, meanwhile, have hammered on the Republican majority for the stalemate, insisting it would be their fault if the agency closes.

Polls showed that most voters blamed the GOP for the 16-day shutdown in 2013. But voters ultimately rewarded the party a year later, giving Republicans control of the Senate and an expanded majority in the House.

"It's about time for them to grow up and pass this bill," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said during a rare joint news conference with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

Throughout the debate, the Department of Homeland Security has struggled to identify ways the public would be affected by the shutdown — causing some Republican lawmakers to question statements from Democrats that a funding lapse amounted to harming national security.

Secretary Jeh Johnson has said about roughly 200,000 front-line workers at the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would continue to work if the agency closes Saturday, but would not be earning pay during that time.

Another 30,000 workers, including staff at headquarters and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would be furloughed.

Front-line Transportation Security Administration workers would continue to report to airports — including BWI — and Customs and Border Protection officers would maintain posts on the border and at the port of Baltimore.

In Maryland, lawmakers say more than 1,000 employees would work without guarantee of pay, including more than 300 Coast Guard officers — many at the Coast Guard yard in Curtis Bay — and roughly 600 Transportation Security Administration agents.

In the past, Congress has always provided retroactive pay following a shutdown.

Avoiding the issue at hand with a short-term spending bill is a classic Washington move, but it, too, has no guarantee of success — and it simply shifts the debate to next month. The White House has not said whether the president would sign such a measure.

The measure would fund the department through March 19.

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Democrats were sharply critical of the short-term measure, suggesting it was simply kicking the issue down the road.

"This is not the way we should be running this Congress," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat. "We owe them certainty that their department is going to be funded for the entire year."

A proposal engineered by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky that includes $40 billion to fund the agency through September was poised to advance in the Senate as early as Friday morning.

The "clean" bill separates the funding of Homeland Security from the immigration issue. The Senate would act on a spending bill free of immigration language and then take up another measure to deal with Obama's actions.

But that idea has met with resistance from many conservatives.

"Funding the Department of Homeland Security is crucial to this country, but we also need to stop the president's de facto amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County lawmaker who is Maryland's only Republican in Congress.

"I will not vote for the Senate bill to fund President Obama's unilateral and unlawful actions on immigration," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said continuing to hijack the funding bill as a way to stop Obama's immigration plan is a "waste of time."

Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, who is up for re-election in 2016, agreed.

"I think the feeling of most people is, it's a fight we should have not fought," Kirk said. "As a governing party, we've got to fund DHS and say to the House, 'Here's a straw so you can suck it up.'"

Some centrist Republicans in the House also voiced unhappiness.

"I've had it with all this," said Republican Rep. Pete King of New York. "I've had it with this self-righteous delusional way of the party, which leads us over the cliff."

The Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

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