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Congress OKs deal to avoid shutdown at Homeland Security

Congress OKs deal to avoid shutdown at Homeland Security
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, walks to the chamber as the House failed to advance a short-term funding measure to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded past a midnight deadline, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday evening. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Congress voted late Friday to approve a one-week funding extension for the Department of Homeland Security, narrowly avoiding a shutdown while setting up the possibility of another battle over immigration in coming days.

With hours to go before frontline workers at the Transportation Security Administration, Coast Guard and other agencies would have been forced to show up to work without pay, House Republicans brought the stopgap measure to the floor after a three-week funding extension failed to advance.

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The last-minute agreement — which had support from Democratic leaders — came at the end of a day in which Republican leaders scrambled to prevent the agency from closing while simultaneously appeasing conservatives angry over President Barack Obama's decision to defer deportation for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

"It's the 11th hour and we must act," Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said minutes before the House voted 357 to 60 pass the bill.

Democrats criticized Republican leaders for their handling of the issue.

"You're sending a negative message that we can't resolve our issues," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat who supported the measure. "We need to resolve the immigration issue, but the first thing that we need to do is protect our national security."

The Senate passed the legislation by voice vote hours earlier. The president was expected to sign the bill.

The agreement, which would fund the department through March 6, provided only a short respite from a showdown that gripped Washington for much of the week — and it did little to resolve the wider disagreement between the political parties over immigration.

Democrats said the bill would clear the way for the House to pass a $40 billion measure, approved by the Senate on Friday, that would keep the department running through the end of September. But there was no guarantee that lawmakers wouldn't wind up at a similar impasse again next Friday.

The stopgap legislation materialized hours after House Republican leaders brought a bill to the floor that would have funded the department through March 19 — a proposal many anticipated would pass.

Despite an intense effort to whip up support during a roll call that lasted nearly an hour, the measure failed — dealing a blow to House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

Democratic leaders, including Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, urged their members to vote against the three-week funding bill in hopes it would force Boehner to accept the longer-term bipartisan measure approved in the Senate.

Rep. John Delaney of Potomac was one of only 12 Democrats to support the three-week bill.

"When the choice is between a shutdown or a clean short-term extension," he said in a statement, "I believe that it is in my constituents' best interest to keep DHS open because homeland security is essential, especially when so many are directly impacted."

Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, also supported the bill, siding with leadership despite a tendency to vote with the conservative wing of the caucus on many issues.

Hoyer, Delaney, Harris and the rest of the state's delegation voted in favor of the one-week measure.

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As lawmakers in Washington wrestled with the stalemate Friday, hundreds of workers at the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay remained focused on their jobs — despite the possibility that a shutdown at midnight could delay paychecks. Roughly 400 workers at the Surface Forces Logistics Center would have been furloughed during a shutdown.

Many others would have worked without pay.

The command is responsible for maintaining nearly 250 Coast Guard cutters around the globe, and roughly 1,800 other vessels, said Ken Burgess, the center's executive director. Burgess said the agency would continue to function during a shutdown but would be limited to core services.

If a cutter's engine died in the Caribbean, for instance, crews would be dispatched to fix the ship. However, the agency would not perform the usual level of analysis to determine the cause of failure — an effort, Burgess said, that is important to preventing similar problems on other vessels.

A shutdown would "present us some challenges," Burgess said. "But we're always ready to perform our duties."

Conservative Republicans in the House have been using the department's funding to take a stand against the executive actions Obama announced last fall to defer deportation for millions of immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

Democrats blame Republicans for combining the two issues. They have pounded GOP leadership for not approving a "clean" funding bill free of language dealing with immigration.

"There are enough crises, frankly, that happen that we don't create," Hoyer said. "Creating crisis is a bad policy, and we ought not to do it."

A shutdown would have consequences, department officials say, even if they are not immediately noticeably to the public.

Employees whose work is deemed "essential," such as Transportation Security Administration screeners, would continue to work at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. U.S. Customs and Border Protection would maintain their stations, including at the port of Baltimore.

But the Obama administration has argued that it's not fair to ask those employees to defend the nation without guaranteeing their pay. And officials have suggested that a shutdown could have tangible implications for hiring, planning and morale.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said about 194,000 front-line workers nationwide would continue to work without pay during a shutdown. Another 30,000, including headquarters staff and a significant share of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would be furloughed, officials have said.

The department has about 3,500 positions in Maryland. The number doesn't include another 1,000 Coast Guard workers. Lawmakers have said more than 1,000 employees in the state would work without pay.

Congress has voted to pay workers retroactively following past shutdowns.

The state and local governments in Maryland benefit from millions of dollars in Department of Homeland Security grants annually. Local emergency management programs, for example, received $6.5 million in federal funding in 2014. It's not clear how much of an impact a short-term shutdown might have on those programs.

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