Congressional Republicans are threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security on Friday unless President Barack Obama undoes executive actions granting some five million undocumented immigrants reprieve from deportation. The push comes despite a growing threat from extremists in the Middle East and repeated warnings from Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson of “a serious disruption in our ability to protect the homeland” should DHS go underfunded.
But Republicans haven’t always been so willing to withhold funding for a department tasked with keeping Americans safe.
In 2002, as Congress worked to established DHS in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the GOP attacked Democrats for failing to pass President George W. Bush’s preferred version of the DHS legislation, openly suggesting that failure to agree with the administration would appease the terrorists.
Bush had initially opposed the creation of a new domestic security agency, but came around to the idea after it gained support in Congress. The White House soon wrote a bill that, as the Washington Post reported, expanded executive branch “authority to hire, discipline, transfer and reward employees and to retain his authority to remove them from unions for national security reasons.”
The Democrat-controlled Senate “is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people,” Bush declared in September of 2002 and soon GOP Congressional candidates argued that opposing Democrats in Georgia, Kansas, New Jersey, and South Dakota were not sufficiently committed to the nation’s safety.
The administration insisted that DHS workers were too critical to national security to be hamstrung by union rules. Democrats, and several Republicans, sought to preserve federal workers’ collective bargaining rights and offered a compromise that would have allowed “the president to remove employees of the new department from their unions, but only if their work missions change and a majority of the workers within the affected office have primary duties related to terrorism investigations.”
The Bush administration termed the proposal a “non-starter” and promptly accused Democrats of putting “special interests” above the nation’s security, kicking off a theme that would dominate the 2002 midterm elections.
No Democrat was vilified more on the issue than former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland (D), a veteran who lost three limbs in the Vietnam war. His Republican opponent, then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss, did not serve in the military, receiving several student and medical deferments. In October of 2002, Chambliss released an ad linking Cleland to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for disagreeing with the labor regulations included in the president’s DHS proposal.
The Cleland ad was the most stark example of the GOP’s eagerness use Democrats’ criticism of the Department as a way to question their commitment to national security.
“As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity. But that’s not the truth,” the narrator says as ominous music plays in the background. “Since July, Max Cleland has voted against the president’s vital homeland security efforts 11 times.”
Cleland, who declined to be interviewed for this article, lost his seat and Republicans reclaimed the majority in the Senate and expanded their majority in the House, easily passing the DHS bill Bush wanted in the lame-duck session with strong Democratic support.
As Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) explained to reporters shortly after the vote, he supported the legislation because of “the tremendous challenge facing the country” to combat terror.