House GOP blocks Obama immigration plan, but there's an asterisk

House Republicans voted to defund Obama's executive action on immigration. But the effort is likely to fail in the Senate, and a path to piecemeal immigration reform might remain.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Tom Cole, (R) of Oklahoma said in a Monitor interview that he still believes pieces of immigration reform could be passed.

House Republicans vented their anger at President Obama Wednesday by denying him the funds he needs to carry out his executive immigration action.

But will that be the epitaph for immigration reform during the Obama years?

To hardliners like Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, yes. But some more moderate Republicans still see a glimmer of hope for moving forward on immigration reform – not as a single, comprehensive bill but on smaller pieces that could get bipartisan support.

The template for that would be December’s vote to fund most of the federal government through September, says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma. The bill passed with the support of roughly two-thirds of Republicans and one-third of Democrats, sidelining dozens of hard-line conservatives.

"That's the only formula that’s really going to work in this situation," said Representative Cole, a close ally of the speaker, in an interview with the Monitor. Ditto for any other major reforms that Congress might tackle in the next two years, he adds.

It might not work. An attempt by House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio to move immigration reform forward last year never even got past the discussion stage. But the situation might be different this time. Not only can House Republicans count on the GOP-controlled Senate as an ally, but Republicans' need to woo Hispanic voters ahead of the 2016 presidential elections could shift the political calculus.

"John Boehner has made no secret of the fact that he wants us to attack this problem," Cole says, but first, "you've got to let him play out his hand."

That meant moving forward with the effort Wednesday by House Republicans to block funding for Mr. Obama's executive action, which was attached to a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security. It now moves to the GOP-controlled Senate but it is highly unlikely to survive a Democratic filibuster there. The White House also has threatened a veto.

The House’s move "is primarily a reaction to the president, whom we think is overreaching, and we’re going to have this fight," Cole says.

But his eye is already on areas of potential agreement among some Republicans, Democrats, and the White House, such as better border security, more high-tech visas, as well as a seasonal program for agricultural workers, which especially affects Republican districts.

"It behooves us to follow with some other things that we know Democrats and the president can accept," he says.

Representative King, one of the most conservative members of the House, dismisses such talk. Obama’s November executive action to defer deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants showed that “the president has proven he’s less trustworthy than before. So ... there isn’t much merit in the idea of going down a path and thinking that we can do something to improve immigration policy when we have a president who thinks he’s the king of America,” he told a small group of reporters on Tuesday.

Immigration reform, he said, will have to wait for another president.

Cole doesn’t deny the anger over Obama’s actions, which is widespread. But he says that things have changed since last January, when Boehner failed to persuade House Republicans to back a set of “principles” on immigration reform due to lack of trust in the president and concern about the mid-term elections.

House Republicans also were worried that the Democratic-led Senate would take any bill they passed and try to turn it into the comprehensive reform bill the Senate passed in 2013.

"The fear was always that if you got into that [and sent House bills over to the Senate], you’d see the full Senate bill attached, and kicked back to us. So the decision was made not to go ahead," Cole says.

That concern is now gone.

The upcoming presidential election has also altered the landscape. Presidential elections tend to draw far more Democratic voters than midterms do, making Republican senators – and the Republican presidential candidate – vulnerable. Appealing to Hispanic voters, who traditionally lean Democratic, through immigration reform might be one way to undercut that advantage.

If moving ahead means following December’s budget-vote formula, one key pro-immigration reform Democrat is all for it. When asked whether the budget model might work for immigration reform, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, said “absolutely it is possible.” Despite his admittedly “harsh” language on reform, he said he – and the president – are still willing to listen to Republican ideas.

“I’m willing. We are all waiting,” he said, pointing to the many concessions he made as a member of a House “gang of eight” who tried to hammer out a bipartisan compromise.

But Congressman Gutierrez also staunchly defended the president’s executive action, pointing to President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order to desegregate the US armed forces -- and the two decades that elapsed before Congress passed landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation.

“Presidents do take these kinds of issues on,” he said. “You want to debate whether he’s gone too far? Take it to the court.”

That’s exactly what may happen, if House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia has his way. At a Monitor Breakfast on Wednesday morning, the chairman said that if the House’s effort to block the president’s immigration “overreach” ultimately fails, Congress should sue.

He told reporters that immigration would be “a very hot topic” at a two-day retreat for House and Senate Republicans in Hershey, Pa., that begins Wednesday. And while he says his committee is reviewing and revising the immigration bills passed in the last Congress, he won’t be rushed.

“For the committee, I think it’s most important for us to stay focused on getting it done right, rather than getting it done under any particular timeline, or for any political purpose, because this is going to endure well beyond 2016.”

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