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Senate Set to Join Immigration Fight

The chamber will take up the House-passed Homeland Security funding bill as early as next week.

Senate Republicans will start their attack on President Obama's immigration orders as early as next week, leaders announced Tuesday.

With Republicans in both chambers unsure how far to push against Obama's executive action to defer deportations for undocumented young adults and parents of legal U.S. residents, the Senate will take up a House-passed funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security—with controversial immigration provisions attached—as soon as it wraps up its fourth week on the Keystone XL pipeline, GOP leaders said.

The announcement comes as the House has delayed action, for now, on a separate border-security bill that some conservatives say isn't harsh enough. Depending on how long the House stays stalled on its border-security bill, the legislation being debated in the Senate could be the only immigration game in town.

Senate leaders hope the Keystone debate will finish soon, although they failed in their first attempt to cut off debate Monday evening, falling short of the 60 votes needed to get to final passage. But several members were absent for that vote, and the floor managers expect that with more votes on amendments, the month-long Keystone debate will finish this week.

The testy DHS legislation will be next, up against a Feb. 27 deadline when the funding for the agency runs out. The leaders' announcement gives the Senate three weeks of floor time to focus on the president's actions, taking a few days off for the Presidents' Day holiday. The House-passed funding bill that the Senate will debate includes language to stop the administration's executive action to defer deportations, a benefit that could reach some 4 million unauthorized immigrants. Obama has threatened to veto the bill because of that language.

Republicans are incensed that Obama used White House authority to take an action that they believe should be a decision of Congress. Before announcing the deferral program, Republicans have pointed out, Obama repeatedly told immigration-reform advocates that he didn't have the authority.

"This is an important fight to have," said Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. "Sometimes you don't know how these legislative battles go until you have them."

Many conservatives both inside and outside the Senate will be watching Republican leaders closely, as some fear the leadership will cave too quickly and move a clean DHS funding bill rather than taking a stand against Obama.

It is unclear how the Republican protest in the Senate will play out, given that DHS funding is at risk. Blunt said he hopes the GOP can attract six Democrats to support the Republican bill, but that is unlikely. Most of the Democrats who have been sympathetic to the GOP's views on immigration were unseated in the November elections. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, gave an impassioned speech on the floor Tuesday morning about the need to fund DHS without fighting about the president's actions.

Durbin also noted, as he has in the past, that Democrats wanted to fund DHS for an entire year in December. It was Republicans, he said, who insisted on a short-term stopgap funding bill so they could stage their fight on the deferred deportations. Now they get their chance.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to answer a question from National Journalabout whether DHS funding is at risk, saying only that "we're turning to DHS as soon as we finish Keystone." Earlier this month, he said the agency would continue to be funded.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican conference chairman, indicated Tuesday that Republicans would not go so far as to allow DHS funding to lapse. DHS agents "have an important job to do. I expect they'll be resourced to do that job," he said.

The fight over the president's deferred action program can occur "in a separate way," Thune added.

One place where the conversation will begin is the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold a confirmation hearing for Obama's attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch this week. GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a longtime member of the committee and former chairman, said Tuesday that he expects Lynch to support the president on the executive action because she "has to," as his Cabinet pick.

"But the question is, how does she support him?" Hatch wondered.

Late last year, the Justice Department released an analysis supporting the president's legal authority to determine who is deported and who isn't, but Hatch had some advice for Lynch on that document: that she should form her own opinion. "I would think she needs to study it a little more," he said.