Opinion writer

John Boehner, at a presser today, warned that if President Obama moves forward with executive action on deportations, Republicans will never, ever, ever act on the legislative immigration reform that Republicans have refused to act on for the last 18 months:

“I’ve made clear to the president that if he acts unilaterally on his own outside of his authority, he will poison the well and there will be no chance for immigration reform moving in this Congress,” Boehner told reporters at his first news conference after big GOP gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

“When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself. And he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path,” he said.

Shorter Boehner: If Obama doesn’t join us in refusing to lift a finger to address our broken immigration system, there is no chance we will ever lift a finger to address our broken immigration system, is that clear?

In the wake of the GOP victory, pundits and reporters have been treating the pending executive action as little more than an optics question — will Obama really dare stick his finger in the eye of the Republicans  after they won such a huge electoral victory? Shouldn’t he be acting more humbled by Tuesday’s outcome?

But beyond such superficialities, there are important questions at stake over the proper limits of executive prosecutorial discretion, over the enforcement priorities underlying them, and over the policy consequences of not acting. What’s more, this could be a big, big deal: It could result in a sustained battle in Congress that could have far reaching consequences for both parties.

Consider how this might unfold. If Obama acts — and that is still not confirmed — he is likely to grant deportation relief to millions. Once the new Congress convenes, it appears Republicans will try to pass something to block that action; Mitch McConnell has pledged to use the “funding process” to do just that.


At that point, a senior Senate Democratic aide tells me, Senate Democrats would move to block the GOP’s action, meaning it would require 60 votes to pass. It’s possible some more conservative Democrats (Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill, Joe Donnelly) could join with Republicans.

That could spark a fight among Democrats: It would infuriate progressives and immigration advocates. They would argue it’s politically imperative for Dems to remain united, to maintain maximum support among Latinos heading into the 2016 presidential race, when the national electorate will be more favorable to Democrats and also help them go on offense in Senate races in states with higher Latino populations.

It’s even possible that Republicans secure the 60 votes to pass something rolling back Obama’s executive action. At that point, the President would presumably veto it, increasing the intensity quotient still more.

Because this combines a fight over “amnesty” with one over alleged executive overreach, it will probably put the conservative media into five-alarm overdrive. Virtually every Republican official in the country will speak out against it. Ted Cruz will rampage throughout the Conservative Entertainment Complex warning of a Constitutional crisis.

If this reaches such incendiary levels, how far will GOP leaders feel compelled to go in fighting it? McConnell is already pledging that “there is no possibility of a government shutdown.” But if there is any area where conservatives will continue to demand maximum confrontation, you’d think it’s here. If so, they will demand a Total War posture against Obama’s efforts to defer the deportations of millions.

Democrats should be ready for this. It could very well be a huge battle. And by the way, the politics of it won’t be easy. While majorities favor legislative legalization, it’s not clear how the public will react to executive action on immigration.  I would not be surprised if the broader public disapproves of it.

But — given that this is happening nearly two years before the next election — what probably matters most politically over the long term is what Latinos end up thinking. While it’s true Democrats hurt themselves among Latinos with the deportation relief delay, a sustained fight culminating in deportation relief for millions could help restore the dynamic of much of the last year, in which Republicans were cementing their image as unwelcoming and as the party of maximum deportations, and Democrats were cementing theirs as the pro-immigrant party. That’s a much better contrast to have heading into the 2016 elections than it was heading into the 2014 contests.