U.S. funding impasse blocks Secret Service hires: Homeland Security chief

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson listens to a question from a Republican member of Congress as he defends President Obama's executive action on immigration at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg (Reuters)

By Doina Chiacu and Susan Cornwell WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Secret Service cannot hire new agents for the next presidential election or make improvements at the agency until Congress settles a dispute over funding, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Thursday. Johnson said in a speech in Washington that uncertainty over the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, which secures U.S. borders, airports and coastal waters and protects the president, had put security initiatives on hold. These included recommendations made in December by a review panel on the Secret Service, which has been plagued with a series of security lapses, among them a White House intruder and a drone that landed on the mansion's lawn early Monday. The agency's director stepped down in October. Secret Service protection extends to major presidential and vice presidential candidates and their spouses within four months of a presidential election. The next election is in November 2016, but the review found the agency was stretched "beyond its limits" and needs to hire new agents and provide more training. The spending authority of the DHS expires on Feb. 27 and Republicans in the House of Representatives have tacked measures onto a DHS spending bill to block Democratic President Barack Obama's executive orders that provide legal protection for about 5 million undocumented immigrants. "This means we cannot invest in the things the independent panel recommended to improve the Secret Service; we cannot hire new Secret Service agents for the coming presidential election cycle," Johnson said of the budget uncertainty during an address at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The White House has said it will veto any funding bill that takes money away from Obama's immigration initiatives. The House bill, which provides $39.7 billion for DHS, has not been taken up yet in the U.S. Senate. The Senate's number two Republican John Cornyn said Thursday he expects a procedural vote next Tuesday on whether to take up the House-passed bill. The bill will need the support of at least half a dozen Senate Democrats to advance, which seems unlikely. Democrats dislike the House language on immigration. Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski urged the Senate Republican leadership on Thursday to bring a "clean" bill to the floor to fund DHS, without the amendments the House had passed. "Do not play politics with the security of the United States of America," she said, citing the Jan. 7 attacks in Paris by Islamist militants. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said there will be no shutdown of DHS, but has not outlined a path to get a bill to Obama that he would sign into law. (Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by John Whitesides and Grant McCool)