The measure, which was approved almost entirely along party lines , would strip administrative protection from the young undocumented immigrants whom President Obama had sought to shield with two-year deportation deferrals last year.
The 244-to-201 vote, in which three conservative Democrats sided with the GOP and six Republicans joined the Democrats, does not mean the death of Mr. Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), since the Senate will likely not back the House's action.
Moreover, it is not necessarily a sign that immigration reform is doomed in the House. Many House Republicans – including House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia – might agree with the intent of DACA, but wanted to rebuke the White House for how it acted. Essentially, Republicans say, Obama did an unconstitutional end run around Congress.
But at a time when House lawmakers working on immigration legislation have spoken about how amicable the discussions have been, the move Thursday was a stark reminder of the emotional nature of the issue – and that, despite immigration reform's relatively smooth sailing so far, potent political issues remain.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, who has long championed the cause of undocumented young people, looked ill when reporters told him about the vote Thursday afternoon.
“I just want to tell you how disappointed I am,” said Senator Durbin, a member of his body’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration reformers. “I cannot believe that they did that. It was a really mean-spirited thing.”
The measure, offered by immigration hardliner Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, was an amendment to an otherwise largely uncontroversial appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security. A similar version of Representative King's passed (and subsequently died) last year. But that came just days before Mr. Obama announced DACA. Through May, more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants had applied for the two-year deferral.
Upon passage of the amendment Thursday, Democrats filled the House chamber with boos. They then revolted against the final funding bill, with 172 members voting against the measure versus only 25 in favor. (Republicans easily passed the bill with 225 "aye" votes of their own.)
“The House majority,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, “simply cannot help themselves.”
Ana Avedano, a leading immigration negotiator with the AFL-CIO, called it “not only abhorrent policy, but suicidal politics.”
Republicans, for their part, contend that using executive discretion to protect a certain population of people is effectively lawmaking by presidential whim.
“How can we take an oath to uphold this Constitution and excuse that behavior? Whether or not we approve of the policy, let’s have the debate on the policy [in Congress] where it belongs,” said King on the House floor Wednesday night.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, the chairman of the House subcommittee specifically charged with immigration, offered a more circumspect rebuke of the White House. He introduced less explosive legislation on Thursday that would have asked the Department of Homeland Security to create an annual report detailing how many people were spared immigration enforcement because of DACA's prosecutorial discretion.
Despite the flareup Thursday, lawmakers working on immigration say that work continues apace. Representative Gowdy and Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia continue to plug away at individual bills handling pieces of the immigration puzzle, while a bipartisan House group, despite losing one if its most high-profile conservative members on Wednesday, plans to introduce a comprehensive immigration fix before the month is out.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada told reporters the Senate would move to its comprehensive reform bill next week.
And House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, who committed his party to an attempt at immigration reform just after the party took a beating from Hispanic voters in the 2012 elections, said the work would go on.
“We're working closely with the committee and the members of the committee. I met with members from both sides of the aisle yesterday on this subject. This is a very difficult issue,” Speaker Boehner told reporters Thursday. “But we're continuing to have these conversations. I'm hopeful that the Judiciary Committee will have some vehicles available to us by the end of the month.”