US Senate strikes homeland security deal, deadline looms

WASHINGTON - US Senate leaders struck a deal Wednesday to avert an ugly shutdown and fund homeland security operations through September, but it remained unclear whether lawmakers will agree to the plan before Friday's deadline.

The fate of US security operations including border patrols, airport screening and Secret Service protection hung in the balance as lawmakers bickered about how to break an impasse over funding the Department of Homeland Security, which has become embroiled in a partisan fight over immigration.

Republicans, irate over President Barack Obama's unilateral action in November to shield millions of undocumented workers from deportation, attached their immigration order repeal efforts to the DHS funding bill.

That measure passed the House in January, but Senate Democrats fought for weeks to keep the two issues separate, blocking the legislation four straight times as the clock ticked toward a midnight Friday deadline.

But with several Republicans voicing concern the party would likely take the blame for a partial security shutdown in the run up to the 2016 presidential race, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to blink.

In a deal he reached with top Senate Democrat Harry Reid, McConnell offered to hold separate votes on immigration measures and DHS.

The Senate voted 98-2 to open debate on the $40 billion (S$54 billion) DHS funding measure, with McConnell pledging to strip out the immigration amendments. A final Senate vote could come as early as Thursday.

"I would welcome bipartisan cooperation," McConnell told senators.

'Stand firm' 

The deal marked a change of course of sorts for Reid, who defiantly said Tuesday he would not act on a separate DHS bill without prior assurance of House Speaker John Boehner's support.

Boehner, seeking to keep his conservative flank in line while averting a DHS shutdown, yielded little about House plans.

"Until the Senate does something, we're in a wait-and-see mode," Boehner told reporters Wednesday after convening with fellow Republicans.

With Boehner soon likely to have to pass a clean DHS bill or own the shutdown, 30 House conservatives wrote him asking Republican leadership to "stand firm" and insisting the immigration plan repeal remain tied to DHS funding.

At an immigration town hall Wednesday in Florida, Obama called on Republicans to stop holding DHS "hostage" to ideological demands, pass the funding measure, and then debate his immigration plan if they wish.

And if McConnell and Boehner "want to have a vote on whether what I'm doing is legal or not, they can have that vote," Obama added.

"I will veto that vote, because I'm absolutely confident that what we're doing is the right thing to do." Failure to fund DHS would mean furloughing 30,000 federal employees, but most staff would remain on the job without pay.

Lawmakers in both parties have insisted projecting any image other than unity on national security would be reckless.

DHS chief Jeh Johnson, who has cris-crossed Capitol Hill seeking to convince Republicans to fund his department, lashed out at Congress, saying it was "absurd" to be debating whether to pay employees of the crucial government agency.