Obama’s immigration plan may give him the upper hand for now

Republicans in Congress are mad as heck about President Obama’s executive order deferring deportation for millions of immigrants in the US illegally. But aside from sharp rhetoric, they haven’t yet figured out what to do about it.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama speaks about immigration at Del Sol High School, in Las Vegas Friday. He unveiled expansive executive actions on immigration Thursday night to spare nearly 5 million people in the U.S. illegally from deportation.

For the moment, at least, here’s what it looks like after President Obama challenged Congress on immigration.

Republican lawmakers spent a day hollering their objections to Obama’s executive order giving several million undocumented immigrants at least temporary relief from the threat of deportation, then left town for a long Thanksgiving break. They’ll be back in Washington for about 10 days in December, then off again.

Obama, meanwhile, continues to use the bully pulpit on immigration reform, seeming to gain energy on an issue which (along with the Affordable Care Act) may define his presidency.

He was in Las Vegas Friday, touting his action on immigration before an enthusiastic audience in a campaign-style setting. Saturday, he beat the drum in his weekly radio/Internet address. This coming week, he’ll be on the road again promoting immigration reform.

Some headline writers are scoring the Congress-White House immigration fight – round one, at least – in Obama’s favor.

The Associated Press: “Stymied? Republicans seek immigration response.” And this: “Analysis: Obama holds upper hand on immigration.”

The Boston Globe: “Obama’s immigration move highlights risks for GOP in 2016.”

Politico.com: “Lack of immigration plan flusters GOP.”

Can it last? Not likely.

Early in the new year, Republicans will take control of the Senate and strengthen their grasp on the House.

Also, there’s widespread public unease with the confrontational way Obama is approaching immigration. Most Americans favor a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already living in the US, but they don’t approve of executive action to get there, recent polls show.

But the problem for the GOP, as The Hill newspaper puts it, are “unruly conservatives in Congress.”

House GOP leaders know they can’t control them,” The Hill reports, “they can only hope to contain them.” That’s why party leaders are batting back any talk of impeachment or government shut-down over immigration – actions that would only confirm public perceptions about political gridlock.

A broader problem for Republicans is the Hispanic vote, just 27 percent of which went for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Republicans made inroads with Hispanics in some states, such as Georgia and Texas, in this month’s midterm elections. But as the Boston Globe points out, Hispanic voters chose Democratic candidates by a 2-to-1 ratio, according to national exit polls of congressional races.

As the GOP acknowledged in its post-2012 self-assessment, “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

That’s why most Republicans are focusing on Obama’s go-it-alone immigration order – “unconstitutional amnesty” (Sen. Ted Cruz) that could “damage the presidency itself” (House Speaker John Boehner) – rather than on the specifics of what he’s proposing.

In his radio address Saturday, Obama repeated what he’d said in his primetime speech Thursday evening, then again Friday in Las Vegas: That the Senate had passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill more than a year ago, but that Republican leaders in the House had refused to allow a vote.

“That bill would have secured our border, while giving undocumented immigrants who already live here a pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes, and went to the back of the line. Independent experts said it would grow our economy, and shrink our deficits,” he said.

(In its weekly address, Republicans went with Rep. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana talking about the Keystone XL Pipeline, which failed in the Senate this week.)

Less than a month after midterm elections where they retook the Senate and amassed a historic majority in the House, Republicans find themselves stymied by a lame duck president whose unilateral move to curb deportations for millions left previously dispirited Democrats cheering and the GOP with no obvious response, the AP reports.

Republicans acknowledge that they’re at a disadvantage given that any legislative solution they settle on would be subject to a veto by Obama that they could not likely overturn.

Among suggestions from GOP lawmakers: Block Obama’s nominees needing Senate confirmation; file a lawsuit against the White House (as congressional Republicans did Friday on the Affordable Care Act); cut funding to Department of Homeland Security agencies; or pass step-by-step immigration reform to override Obama’s executive actions – something Obama might be forced to live with.

But as Politico puts it, “GOP leaders have declined to broadcast any plans as they take the temperature of rank-and-file Republicans, who range in ideology from hardliners agitating for a direct confrontation with Obama to deal-making centrists who fret a harsh GOP overreaction will make it impossible to make bipartisan progress on anything next year.”

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