Both political parties are in a state of high anxiety about the possibility that President Obama will allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the country, fearing that White House action on the issue could change the course of November’s midterm elections.
In the past few days, Democratic candidates in nearly every closely fought Senate race have criticized the idea of aggressive action by Obama. Some strategists say privately that it would signal that he has written off the Democrats’ prospects for retaining control of the chamber, deciding to focus on securing his legacy instead.
Senior Republicans, meanwhile, have their own worries about a “September surprise” on immigration. They know their volatile party’s tendency to erupt at such moments — including government shutdowns and impeachment threats — and that the GOP brand is even more tattered than the Democratic one.
All this is true, but the two sides do not have equivalent problems. Senate Democrats will bear the brunt of voters’ outrage. But House leaders have the ability to fend off extreme and self-destructive moves. Impeachment is out of the question, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said many times.
As for a government shutdown or a crisis over the debt ceiling, House leadership has made plain that these do not work as weapons for the GOP; rather, they are booby traps for the unwary. In both cases, Boehner need not capitulate to backbenchers. He can operate on continuing resolutions and pass modest increases in the debt ceiling with Democratic votes. A rebellion by House radicals will likely rule out spending cuts (which Democrats won’t support) in conjunction with a debt ceiling hike, unless of course Boehner has enough votes by virtue of the 2014 election results and some soul-searching by more conservative members. Moreover, if Republicans have majorities in both houses, they can pass tough border-control measures and dare the president to veto them and invite future border surges.
Boehner’s hand will be strengthened by the 2013 experience, generally regarded by all but the far right as a disaster for the GOP. And, of course, now we know there is little to fear from loud-mouth groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project. These groups can raise cash but can’t win primary election challenges. It is for this reason that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and others don’t think we’ll get to a shutdown standoff.
So, yes, a potential overreaction to the president’s lawlessness poses dangers for the GOP, but they are certainly manageable. Huge losses among Senate Democrats, however, will spell the effective end of the Obama presidency and provide healthy margins for some popular measures that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has blocked (e.g. Iran sanctions, domestic energy development).
All of this reminds us that the GOP House and Senate leaders would do well to have a game plan going into 2015. In response to presidential lawlessness, both bodies can censure Obama, pass legislation seeking to override his executive actions and force Democrats to choose between the president and their own skins. (Hillary Clinton will be none too thrilled about this.) They need a positive agenda on health care, energy, defense spending, regulatory reform and anti-poverty measures. And on the bright side, Obama will set a precedent for President Rick Perry or President Chris Christie to take all sorts of unilateral action.