WASHINGTON — Senate leaders moved toward a deal Wednesday to avoid a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, sidestepping a fight over immigration policy. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, declared his administration would curtail deportation of immigrants despite a loss in court earlier this month.
Money for Homeland Security has been tied up for weeks as congressional conservatives sought to block the department's budget unless Democrats agreed to a measure repealing Obama's executive actions on deportation.
Funds for the department, which oversees immigration and border security, among other duties, will run out Friday night unless lawmakers act. Administration officials say that would force some department employees off the job. About 85 percent of the department's employees would have to work without pay.
That would include about 1,000 employees in Maryland, including roughly 600 Transportation Security Administration officers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and another 300 Coast Guard employers at Curtis Bay.
The Department of Homeland Security funds about 3,500 positions in the state, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Federal officials say the processing of grants to state and local governments could be interrupted, but state and local officials say they don't expect serious repercussions unless a shutdown continued for months.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been anxious to avoid even a temporary shutdown, fearing the political risk. On Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican offered to move ahead with a no-strings-attached bill to provide funds, and on Wednesday, Senate Democrats agreed not to block his plan.
Obama, in a meeting with activists in Washington and later at a town hall meeting in Miami, defended his plan to stop the deportation of several million immigrants who came to the United States illegally. He said the executive action he took was necessary to encourage a large population to come out of the shadows, work and pay taxes.
He said the decision by a federal court in Texas this month to block implementation of his plan reflected the will of "just one federal judge." He said his administration has appealed the ruling "aggressively."
Obama's trip was the latest move in a campaign to shape the issues of the 2016 presidential race. Democrats hope a large Latino turnout in their favor, like the ones they enjoyed in 2008 and 2012, will help them again.
The standoff over the Homeland Security budget has helped heighten the contrast between the two parties on immigration — much to the chagrin of some Republican strategists.
To end the deadlock, McConnell proposed that the Senate vote to provide money for the department and act separately to overturn Obama's policy.
Obama said he would block a repeal measure.
If McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner "want to have a vote on whether what I'm doing is legal or not, they can have that vote," he said in Florida. "I will veto that."
The brinkmanship has given Democrats an opportunity to hammer Republicans for flirting with a shutdown of a law enforcement agency — a move they have repeatedly described as irresponsible.
"The Republicans pledged to America that they would not join together very controversial issues with non-controversial issues. It took them less than two weeks to break that pledge," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House.
"They have put the safety of Americans and the security of America at risk by taking hostage a bill that we all support," he added.
Senate Democrats, meeting privately over lunch, decided they would not block McConnell's offer of an unencumbered funding bill for the department. They also said they would block the vote on Obama's immigration policy until funds for Homeland Security had been approved by both chambers, ending the shutdown threat.
The Senate voted 98-2 Wednesday in a procedural vote to open debate on the money bill. The opposition comes from conservative Republicans.
Progress in the Senate still means days of knotty procedural votes unless all senators agree to speed up the process. That seems unlikely because the Republicans who are most opposed to the president's immigration actions would prefer to prolong the fight.
"It's going to be bumpy," acknowledged Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber's second-ranking Republican.
Unless conservatives drop their objections, Senate officials said, the earliest the chamber could finish the bill would be Sunday.
"We're beginning a pathway here, a process," said Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the minority whip. "We're testing the waters of trust."
Even then, there would be a question of whether Boehner would bring such a bill to the floor of his chamber, where it could pass with Democratic support. Doing so would deeply anger some conservative Republicans.
A group of 30 House Republicans wrote to the GOP leadership Wednesday urging them to hold firm against the McConnell plan.
"We want to stop the amnesty," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican. He said linking the immigration fight to the money bill provides Republicans with leverage.
"I'm waiting for the Senate to act," he said as he emerged from a closed session of House Republicans before holding his first talks with McConnell in two weeks. "Until the Senate does something, we're in wait-and-see mode."
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, (R-Bakersfield) told fellow lawmakers to keep their schedules "flexible," a hint that lawmakers might need to work over the weekend to resolve the standoff or to pass a stop-gap measure to keep the department operating for a few extra days.
Some lawmakers were preparing for the possibility of a shutdown. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, introduced a bill to ensure Homeland Security workers would receive retroactive pay if the agency is shuttered for any length of time.
The measure drew praise Wednesday from a federal employee union that represents many Homeland Security workers, including TSA officers.
"Homeland Security employees should not be left wondering when or if they will get paid in the event of a shutdown," said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees.