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Homeland Security debate threatens storm relief for N.E.

Funding battle threatens to close disaster agency

A large snowpile in North Andover earlier this month.
A large snowpile in North Andover earlier this month.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — Millions of federal dollars to help New England recover from historic snowstorms are threatened this week by the latest partisan budget morass in Congress.

House Republicans injected immigration into the debate over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, and now — with four days before the agency would partially shut down for lack of money — Senate GOP leaders are struggling to find a way to keep it functioning.

The impasse reprises the budget brinkmanship that has plagued Congress in recent years.

At issue for snow-weary New England: The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, would have to furlough staff as part of the shutdown. That, in turn, would prevent FEMA from processing requests for emergency assistance from localities hardest hit by winter weather — including Massachusetts communities buried in snow.

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“We cannot continue to make payments,” said FEMA director Craig Fugate. “The people required to make those payments — to oversee that — will not be there. There are real consequences.”

To protect public safety during the possible budget crisis, the president will require airport screeners, border patrol officers, and other essential personnel to work without pay. But reviewing storm-damage claims does not fall into the category of essential services.

FEMA on Monday began warning states and localities to prepare for delays in the emergency aid applications. Recovery payments and other public assistance will be “significantly impacted,” warned FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre .

Republicans took control of Congress vowing to avoid the pitched battles that led to the 2013 government shutdown. They almost made it two months.

House Republicans easily passed a Department of Homeland Security budget that would roll back President Obama’s controversial executive actions on US immigration policy. But it was doomed as soon as it arrived in the Senate. Democrats refuse to vote for anything but a “clean” funding bill that does not overrule Obama’s plan to prevent the deportation of millions of undocumented residents.

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The result: Republicans are reaping scorn for holding the Homeland Security budget hostage over immigration policy.

“It’s unacceptable at this point that [the bill] is languishing, giving the enormity of the problem we are facing with global threats,” said former senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican and senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “This [funding bill] should not have been the vehicle.”

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on Monday accused Democrats of preventing any discussion of the bill by refusing to bring it up. “It just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. But he also announced plans on Monday to work on legislation that would address only Obama’s immigration plans. He called it “another option we can turn to.”

Republicans’ strategy to direct blame at Democrats may have limited effectiveness. A CNN poll conducted in mid-February found that 53 percent of Americans would blame Republicans for a partial shutdown, and only 13 percent would dish equal blame. Voters also blamed Republicans in 2013 when an impasse led to a broader government shutdown.

“We’ve seen this movie before and it’s not a good ending, at least on our side,” said Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security secretary and former Republican governor from Pennsylvania. Ridge does not support Obama’s immigration actions but insists the Homeland Security budget needs to pass.

“If you want to raise the issue of immigration and the president,’’ Ridge said, “don’t do it on the backs of the people at DHS.”

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Some House Republicans appear dug in. “Congressional Republicans are unified in their desire to move forward to provide homeland security in a responsible manner,” Representative Bill Flores, a Texas Republican and Republican Study Committee chairman, said in a statement. “It is time for the Senate to act on that bill.”

The Senate could sidestep the immigration debate by passing a short-term bill to keep Homeland Security operating for a few more months, although that might just delay the reckoning. An order by a Texas federal judge last week to temporarily stop the president’s immigration actions also may give cover to some Republicans.

Even an extension concerns Democrats.

“Continuing stopgap budgets put our domestic security in a straitjacket,” said Representative Bill Keating, a Bourne Democrat who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who visited Washington this week and requested federal aid for storm repairs, tried to strike an optimistic tone.

He told reporters after meetings at the White House Monday that he was “hopeful that one way or another between now and the deadline on Friday the House, the Senate, and the president will reach some sort of accord.”

The governor’s office is conducting a damage assessment as part of the state’s application to FEMA for federal disaster relief, which would seek a presidential declaration to get federal aid flowing to Massachusetts. The types of federal assistance the president can make available include financial or housing assistance for individuals and help for municipalities stretched thin by the costs of repairs.

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Democrats and the White House continued to ratchet up the pressure on Republicans by drawing as much attention as possible to national security concerns.

“It will have a direct impact on your economy, and it will have a direct impact on America’s national security because their hard work helps to keep us safe,” Obama told state governors on Monday at a White House meeting. He will further emphasize the issue on Wednesday at a town hall meeting in Miami about immigration.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson appeared on most major Sunday news shows this week, and at a press conference on Monday he pleaded with Congress “not to tie the debate about immigration to the funding of Homeland Security for this nation.”

About 80 percent of employees who work at key agencies will have to work — just without pay.

Johnson told reporters Monday the estimated 30,000 members of the agency’s headquarters staff that would have to be furloughed include those who process federal grants for local police, fire, and other first responders as well as officials who “closely monitor our weather conditions in a very harsh winter.”

Those staffs, he said, will be “cut back to a skeleton crew” if a budget is not approved by the end of the week.


Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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