Why GOP is likely to cave in fight over Obama's immigration directives

Republicans don't have the votes to pass a measure to rein in President Obama's moves to defer deportation of people in the US illegally – or to overcome a presidential veto, even if they did. 

Yvette Vela/The Brownsville Herald/AP
Protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse early Thursday in Brownsville, Texas, to chant, read poems, and share stories of their immigration struggles. Attorneys for 25 states were expected to appear before a federal judge in Brownsville Thursday to argue for a rollback of President Obama's expansive executive actions to spare nearly 5 million people living in the US illegally from deportation.

Yesterday House Republicans launched their opening move in their war against the president’s announcement of deferred action on deportation of illegal immigrants with the passage of a bill that purports to revoke the changes to the law that the president made via executive action: 

WASHINGTON — The House voted on Wednesday to gut major provisions of President Obama’s immigration policy, approving legislation that would revoke legal protections for millions of unauthorized immigrants, including children, and put them at risk of deportation.

The vote drew condemnation from Democrats and the White House and led more than two dozen Republicans, many worried about the perception that the party is hostile to immigrants, to break away and vote no.

The most contentious measures in the bill are certain to die in the Senate, where Democrats have said they will wage a filibuster and some Republicans are likely to join in opposition. Mr. Obama has said he would not sign legislation that undermined the immigration changes he has carried out through executive action.

The House vote offered the first signs of how the new Republican-led Congress will navigate the bitter debate over the president’s directives, as well as evidence of emerging fissures in a party that has prided itself on nearly unanimous opposition to the president.

Because Republicans have said that they will use the $40 billion funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security as their vehicle for dismantling Mr. Obama’s action, Congress faces another deadline that seems likely to force an accommodation before the department’s money is due to run out at the end of February.

Yet, in just their second week of control on Capitol Hill, Republicans on Wednesday were forced to address questions about whether the party again would be hobbled by internal disagreements over immigration policy. And they were faced with an unwelcome distraction from their message of governing responsibly and cooperatively: explaining why the vote on Wednesday should not be seen as an insult to Hispanics, a constituency Republicans lost by more than two to one in the 2012 presidential election and have been trying to woo since.

In the House, 26 Republicans voted against an amendment to effectively undo Mr. Obama’s 2012 executive action that allowed immigrants who had entered the United States illegally as children to stay. The amendment just barely passed with 218 votes, a few more than it needed. No Democrats voted yes.

The overarching funding bill for Homeland Security passed, 236 to 191, with 10 Republican defections. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, was expected to meet with his members over the next few days to discuss how to move forward with the bill, including whether they could amend it, strip out some of its more contentious amendments and send it back to the House.

Republicans who supported the legislation said there was nothing cruel about their intentions. The debate was not about immigration, many of them insisted on Wednesday, but about a president who had exceeded his authority by rewriting immigration law without Congress’s consent.

“By their votes last November, the people made clear they want more accountability from this president – enough is enough,” said Speaker John A. Boehner before the vote. “By our votes here today, we will heed their will.”

Representative Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who sponsored the amendment to end the legal protection Mr. Obama gave in 2012 to immigrants who came to the country as children, said, “We are either a nation of laws, or we are lawless.”

Aside from removing those legal protections, the bill would also effectively reverse the president’s executive action from late last year that allowed immigrants who have lived here illegally for at least five years to apply for work permits and avoid deportation. The House measure would prohibit the use of any government funds to pay for the manpower needed to carry out that directive, like processing applications and permits.

As the article goes on to note, this is only the beginning of the battle over the president’s immigration policy that will play out over the coming weeks. In addition to possible additional measures in the House, the bill that passed yesterday must now go on to the Senate. The first question there will be whether the bill goes through the committee process or heads straight to the Senate floor for consideration by the full Senate. The recent promises of incoming GOP leadership to rely more often on “regular order” would suggest that the proper procedure would be to send the bill through the committee process, but going that way on this bill is complicated by the fact that this bill must be passed by the end of February in order for the Department of Homeland Security to continue to be funded. Pushing the bill through committee could potentially slow it down so much that there would be little room for error before spending authority runs out, and also raises the threat that proceeding in this manner would weight the bill down with amendments that would make reconciliation with the House version of the bill, or even passage in the Senate, unlikely. So, expect this bill to go directly to the floor, but that’s where the real problems start for the GOP.

As most observers expected, Republicans did not use their new-found control of the Senate to make any further changes to the filibuster rules. This means that they will need to pick up 60 votes in order to pass the House bill, with any modifications that may be made on the Senate floor, which means finding at least five Democrats willing to support a bill that curtails the president’s immigration policy. At first glance, that seems quite unlikely, so the most likely outcome right now is that this current bill dies in the Senate, probably sometime in late January, if not earlier. Even if the bill passed the Senate, though, the bill would most assuredly be vetoed by President Obama, and it is exceedingly clear that there aren’t enough votes in either chamber of Congress to overturn an expected veto. In the House, there were 26 Republicans who voted against the measure, but even if every Republican voted to override the veto, the GOP would still be some 44 votes short of a veto override. In the Senate, they’d need to convince 12 Democrats to override the president’s veto. So even if the bill passed the Senate somehow, it would still die, and the ball would be back in the GOP’s court.

At that point, the GOP would have to decide whether it wants to push the matter of opposition to the president’s immigration actions further by continuing to refuse to pass a “clean” funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, in which case that department will be forced to rely solely on emergency funds after the end of February, or they will reluctantly concede that the defunding option has failed. It would, in other words, be the government shutdown debate all over again, except that it would be focused solely on one part of the government. The problem that the GOP faces is that the department in question also happens to be the one primarily responsible for everything from the nation’s response to terrorist threats and natural disasters to presidential security, the processing of immigration applications for legal immigrants, and the border patrol. Will Republicans really be willing to put all of this at risk over their dispute with the president?

Jennifer Rubin finds it unlikely that they would:

[U]ltimately, I cannot imagine that Republicans will allow the DHS to go unfunded; the stakes are too high. For Senate leaders, the key will be to stand by the majority leader’s promise of open debate; for the backbenchers, it will be whether they can at the end of the day be responsible stewards of government or whether the temptation to vilify leaders as sellouts and scoundrels is too enticing.

The resolution of this will test the unity and sanity of the Senate Republican majority. More to the point, it will present Cruz and his ilk with a nettlesome issue: What happens when you just don’t have the votes to do what you want?


As I noted when I wrote about this last week, I tend to agree that this is how things are likely to turn out, especially in light of the Paris terror attacks and continued reports about other ongoing threats of attacks in Europe, Australia, and the United States. As with past government shutdowns, Republicans apparently think that they will be able to pin responsibility for a shutdown on the president and Democrats, but as we saw in October, it’s typically the party that’s seen as unwilling to compromise that gets the blame, and, in this case, that’s likely to be the GOP, especially since polling indicates that, at least on substance, the public tends to support the president on immigration rather than the Republican Party. The overriding issue, though, is that it is difficult to me to see how the GOP can positively spin the idea that it is holding up funding for a wide variety of security-related funding over what likely seems to many like a fairly minor dispute over immigration policy between the executive and legislative branches. Indeed, I’d hazard a guess that most Americans are going to think it's more important that the agency primarily responsible for detecting and deterring terrorist attacks be fully funded, as will a significant number of Republicans in both chambers of Congress. Given this, my guess is that, in the end, the GOP will back down, pass a “clean” bill to fund DHS, and be forced to look for another avenue to challenge the president’s immigration actions. This isn’t going to make the tea party happy, of course, but it seems fairly clear that they are going to have to learn fairly quickly that even having a majority in Congress doesn’t mean the GOP is going to get everything it wants.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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