The Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday that can only be described as a hard, straightforward response to President Barack Obama’s executive immigration initiative.
In November, shortly after the congressional midterm elections that gave the Republican party a small majority in the Senate and its largest presence in the House since the Great Depression, Obama issued an executive order that changed U.S. immigration law so that deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants would be deferred.
The timing of his announcement was key. The deluge of unaccompanied migrant children over the southwestern United States border throughout spring and summer presented a new, humanitarian crisis for the American government. It is impossible to argue that the growing crisis did not create an even greater need for reform or, by extension, inform Obama’s decision to act without Congress. But, as the president made clear in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, the coming midterms necessitated postponing his unilateral immigration action. Obama told Todd the delay would make his executive order “more sustainable.” Sustainable is a helpfully-ambiguous term; what the delay really meant was that the administration didn’t want the backlash created by his executive order to harm the already-low odds of Democrats in the midterms. Or, as one White House official told CNN, immigration reform is “too big of an issue to allow it to be used as a tool for people trying to get votes. It isn’t about votes for any particular candidate; it’s about dealing with this issue in an environment that avoids the grandstanding we’ve seen in the past.” The Obama administration also feared that making sweeping step toward reforming federal immigration law during election season would doom more comprehensive changes after he leaves the White House. And during the interview, the president claimed his postponement was not a tactical maneuver.
Whatever the motive, that move earned the president criticism from both sides of the immigrant debate; immigrant rights groups felt letdown while Republican lawmakers and pundits described the delay as political gamesmanship. Of course, Obama’s executive order created even more Republican outrage. “There is never a right time for the president to declare amnesty by executive action,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement, “but the decision to simply delay this deeply-controversial and possibly unconstitutional unilateral action until after the election — instead of abandoning the idea altogether — smacks of raw politics.”
Now Republicans have begun to put their own political maneuvers in play. Both the party’s strong majorities in both houses and the fact that Congress failed once again to pass a budget for the fiscal year that began in September gave the Republicans an opportunity. The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package, passed in the middle of December, funds the government through the end of next September — except for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees key immigration agencies: Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services. Republicans chose to write a separate measure funding the Department of Homeland Security with a clear intention: gaining an edge in the battle over immigration reform. With the Republican’s Senate majority will be in place, the party will have a tool to combat Obama’s much-despised executive action that defers deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants. By threatening to withhold funding for the Department of Homeland Security, Republicans can ensure that language blocking the deferred departments would be included.
Currently, funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires on February 27. The legislation passed by the GOP-led House on Wednesday authorizes the necessary funds to keep the department running, but tagged on policy riders that would reverse Obama’s November executive immigration order, the Morton Memos of 2011 and 2012 that relaxed some immigration laws, and 2012’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which deferred deportations of more than 6,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, by withholding the needed financing. Other amendments included with the spending bill focus on immigration enforcement for sex offenders.
The legislation, which passed the House on a 236 to 191 vote that fell largely along party lines — provided $39.7 billion for the Department Homeland Security, an increase of $400 million from last year. For now, it is unclear whether the legislation will be able to pass the Senate, where Republicans hold a 54-seat majority that is shy of the 60 votes needed to overturn a presidential veto or advance legislation beyond procedural hurdles. As Politico’s Burgess Everett noted, Senate Republicans believe the legislation — which needs to grab six Democrat votes to pass — has little chance of passing the chamber. It is also concerning for the GOP leadership, and the party’s efforts to combat Obama’s unilateral immigration decision, that 26 Republican representatives joined Democratic block voting against the spending bill. Still, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), believes “there won’t be clean bill,” that lacks the immigration riders. “We have to absolutely confront the president.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Politico reporters that the upper house will attempt to pass the House’s hardline bill. But “if we’re unable to do that, we’ll see what happens,” he added.
That House Republicans have chosen to use the Department of Homeland Security’s budget as an opportunity to rein in Obama concerns the agency’s secretary, Jeh Johnson. “Recent world events — the terrorist attacks in Paris, Ottawa, Sydney, and elsewhere, along with the public calls by terrorist organizations for attacks on Western objectives — call for increased vigilance in homeland security,” Johnson said in a statement released January 15. “In these times, the budget of the Department of Homeland Security cannot become a political volleyball.” He would urge “Congress to pass an appropriations bill for DHS as soon as possible, free of politically-charged amendments to defund our executive actions.’’
And if Republicans are weighing the political benefits of turning the funding of the Department of Homeland Security into a political volleyball, there is another consideration: The bill’s clear goal of tightening immigration enforcement has the potential to hurt the Republican party’s efforts to boost its appeal to Hispanic voters in the coming 2016 presidential elections.
As for Obama, he is not likely to be content with November’s order to defer deportations. “The fact of the matter is no matter how bold I am, nothing I can do will be as comprehensive or lasting as the Senate bill. Anything I can do can be reversed by the next President,” the president said back in October. “To move beyond what I can do in a limited way, we are going to need legislation.” Lawmakers on both sides of the isle have acknowledged real changes to federal immigration laws are needed. The problem is finding a compromise.
Before November’s executive action, it was expected the Obama administration would attempt to implement a broader reform. The White House website delineated a multi-step plan for “creating an immigration system for the 21st century.” It included a continuation of efforts to strengthen border security and infrastructure; cracking down “more forcefully” on business that knowingly hire undocumented workers; creating a program for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States to earn citizenship through the payment of back taxes and the learning of English; and a strategy for allowing for simple and efficient legal immigration for “anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules.” This was essentially the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June 2013 by an extremely partisan vote of 68 to 32, before dying in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. It was drafted by a mixed group of Republican and Democratic senators known as the “Gang of Eight,” which included Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Democrat Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and Chuck Schumer of New York. Opponents of the legislation called it the amnesty bill.
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