Congressional Republicans face a dilemma. Most believe it would be politically disastrous to shut down the government right after winning control of Congress, proving correct every Democratic argument about how radical and reckless they are. But they want to stop Barack Obama from taking the executive action he has proposed on immigration, and they only have so many points of leverage through which they can do so.

As we’re learning today, Republicans are feverishly strategizing to find some clever way to tie Barack Obama’s hands yet avoid the wave of bad PR a shutdown would bring. Byron York reports on some of the early thinking:

The only thing Republicans will do in the lame duck session — that is, before they take control of the Senate, and keep control of the House, in January — is to make sure a short-term government funding bill is passed by the time the current one expires on Dec. 11.
Then in January, with the GOP in control — and, presumably, Obama’s edict in hand — Republicans will work on crafting a new spending measure that funds the entire government, with the exception of the particular federal offices that will do the specific work of enforcing Obama’s order.

Politico reports more on the idea of splitting government funding into separate bills:

The options include offering a separate piece of immigration legislation on the floor aimed at tightening border security and demanding the president enforce existing laws, promises to renew the effort next year when Republicans have larger numbers in both chambers, and passing two separate funding bills — a short-term bill with tight restrictions on immigration enforcement agencies, and another that would fund the rest of the government until the fall.

If they offered such a bill now, it would die in the Senate, which is still controlled by the Democrats until January. Once we get to next year, President Obama would presumably veto any bill restricting his ability to act on immigration, and if that bill funded the Department of Homeland Security (which includes the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement), we’d then have ourselves a mini-shutdown.

If Obama made a mistake in this chess game, it may have been promising to take executive action before the end of the year, i.e. before Republicans actually take control. Because as long as they’re not completely sure what he’ll do, they can’t write a spending bill to stop it. As it is, the divided Congress can pass a short-term spending bill in the lame duck session, and then Republicans can wait until Obama moves before crafting some new legislative maneuver in the new Congress to confront it. And if anybody can come up with a clever procedural maneuver, it’s Mitch McConnell.

But what we may really end up here is a game of chicken. Obama wants Congress to pass a longer-term spending bill; Republicans want Obama to show his hand on immigration first, so they can figure out how to confront him. And they want to do so in a way that employs their power of the purse without it being labeled a “government shutdown,” complete with news stories about Americans being turned away at national parks. Whoever moves first stands a higher chance of losing.

On the one hand you’d think this situation would encourage the White House to wait on executive action. Holding off might force Republicans to pass a longer-term spending bill in January, leaving Obama free to act. At that point, if Republicans pass a bill to undo it (which is what Rep. Hal Rogers, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, proposed today), Obama could just veto it. On the other hand, perhaps the White House would rather force this confrontation sooner rather than later — baiting Republicans into a frenzy of overreach.

The perfect scenario for Republicans is engineering a partial shutdown that leads Obama to relent on executive action, but doesn’t actually look to the country like a shutdown. If they could pull it off, it would please a base thirsty for a confrontation with Obama and worried about the consequences of the policy changes he is proposing, while not damaging the GOP’s standing with the broader public.

If all this procedural plotting is making your head spin, welcome to the final years of the Obama presidency. You may have noticed that one thing we aren’t talking about is what the country should actually do about our immigration policy. The substantive questions disappear behind a fog of Machiavellian strategizing, a legislative judo match where the only question is whether Democrats or Republicans get thrown to the mat first.

Which is probably where Republicans want this debate to remain. If the discussion turns to what to do about the undocumented population in this country, Republicans will be divided among themselves. But if they shape everything around reacting to Obama’s alleged overreach, they’ll be united.