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Republican strategy to counter Obama immigration moves emerging

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) addresses reporters outside his office in the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 21. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

This item has been updated.

Congressional Republicans are developing plans to use their funding authority to challenge President Obama’s recent executive actions on immigration.

The emerging plan is a telling example of how the new GOP majorities in the next Congress plan to govern: with anger toward president whom they believe has abused the powers of his office, but wary of their own potential for political over-reaching.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) shared his strategy with members Tuesday morning, but told reporters afterward that no final decisions have been made. Aides privately described a two-step process that will allow Republicans to rebuke the president and keep the government open after the current spending agreement expires next Thursday.

Aides privately described a two-step process that would begin with a bill to ban the White House from changing immigration laws, a largely symbolic effort to curb Obama's executive authority that would be quickly discarded by the Democratic-controlled Senate. The bill is being pushed by tea party conservative Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.).

The second bill would fund most of the government through the end of the fiscal year next September, but strip out parts related to immigration funding. Those agencies and programs would be funded for a briefer period, likely until the Spring, giving GOP lawmakers more time to come up with specific ways to chip away at Obama's executive actions.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson has warned Republicans that incrementally funding his department and its dozens of agencies risked the nation's security and his ability to enforce current immigration laws. Johnson clashed with GOP lawmakers Tuesday over Obama's actions during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.

Whether Congress can escape from the lame-duck session with the government funded for at least a short period is the first major test for Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the post-election period, forcing them to grapple with the many competing blocs in their conferences and quickly build a cross-chamber political consensus. They will also need to be on high alert as the deadline looms. If the votes are not there for their composite plan, a stopgap bill to fund the government, without the leadership's appropriations attached, may be needed to ensure a shutdown is averted.

The situation remains fluid and how Republican leaders manage to sell their plan will be under close scrutiny. The forthcoming debate will need to strike a delicate balance that assures conservatives the immigration fight is not being abandoned, while also being sensitive to possibly alienating Hispanics and immigrant communities that have welcomed Obama's changes.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has made it clear that Republicans should not expect Democratic votes for bills that only provides short-term funding for immigration programs, leaving Boehner little room for error as he counts votes.

Over the past  week, GOP leaders have been  making the case to members that the party's best chance at dismantling the president's policies would come next year, once Republicans have a grip on both  chambers. Pointing to last year's 16-day shutdown, they have argued against making GOP opposition an easy target for Democrats and cautioning against the likely internal strife that an immigration standoff this winter would cause, so soon after the party made significant gains in the midterm elections.

Boehner told reporters Tuesday that Republicans are "looking at a variety of options, both for right now and when Republicans control both houses of the Congress next year." He later added that Obama's actions were "a serious breach of our Constitution. It's a serious threat to our system of government."

Conservatives remain skeptical about whether Boehner is being aggressive enough.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) spoke up in the Tuesday meeting and warned his colleagues that they could be "accessories" to the president if they fund federal immigration agencies, even for a brief period into the new year, according to several members present. That is the thrust of an approach outlined by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the incoming budget committee chairman, which would only provide short term funding for the Homeland Security Department that will be responsible for implementing Obama's executive actions.

King told reporters that any funding for immigration makes Republicans part of the problem. "If we go forward, they're asking members to vote to fund that in the short term, and then promising that we will fight in the longer term when we have a majority in the United States Senate," he said. "I don't want that red herring to be dragged across in front of us. We have to fight."

King's argument has been echoed in the Senate by Sen Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has pitched his party on cutting funds for immigration programs unless the president relents and using spending bills as leverage in winning Democratic concessions.

The selection of Yoho's bill as one of the key parts of the emerging combination package of legislation is a signal from Boehner to the House's conservative members that he is looking to one of their own as he plots his immigration gambit. Even though Boehner faces no serious challenge for the gavel, he is aware of the need to keep conservatives on his side on immigration, or else risk another revolt among grassroots activists.

Yoho, who has talked up impeachment more than almost any other House Republican, voted against Boehner in the speaker election two years ago. Yoho said Tuesday that he was convinced that Boehner's decision to bring him into the mix was not a symbolic gesture designed to reassure conservatives.

"I don't think so," Yoho told reporters. "[Boehner] said this was a good bill and they're going to bring it up."

Potential Republican presidential candidates, concerned about the political consequences of another showdown between the White House and Capitol Hill, are keeping close watch and asking their congressional brethren to move forward prudently.

At a  luncheon Monday on Capitol Hill, former Florida governor Jeb Bush told a group of GOP officials and donors, including McConnell and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), that the party should avoid a standoff.

Instead, Bush said in brief remarks, Republicans should pass a series of "sensible" immigration bills next year to underscore their commitment to governing and reforming the immigration system.

Bush also argued that this post-election moment was an ideal setting for Republicans to better promote their ideas on energy, education, and the economy and said he hoped those issues would not be overshadowed.

"It was a mature pitch," said Bush ally Dan Meyer, a former legislative affairs adviser in the George W. Bush White House. "He was serious about the importance of leading responsibly."

Speaking earlier at the lunch, McConnell said Republicans must pursue an aggressive agenda in the coming months without becoming mired by intra-party clashes over strategy. While highly critical of the president, he did not call for a fiscal battle to be mounted during the lame-duck session.

"McConnell stood up and addressed the challenges that he and the Republicans have going forward. He told us about the need to manage expectations that come with winning power," said John Pohanka, an automobile dealer and GOP donor.

The meeting at the National Republican Senatorial Committee's headquarters was a fundraiser for Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who is campaigning against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in a runoff scheduled for Saturday.

Separately, Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham warned that conservative activists -- and especially "our 10,000 sentinels" who follow Congress closely -- would rally to defund immigration programs in the coming days, shrugging off the advice coming from the party's establishment.

"We will ask Republicans to propose a limiting amendment that would cut any fees or funds for the president's unlawful amnesty," Needham said in an interview  Monday. "If they put that onto an omnibus bill as a rider, it could be something we support. But we expect Republicans to use the power of the purse to make sure the president's actions are not enforced or funded."

Beyond the spending bill, a flurry of unresolved issues remain for Congress with less than two full weeks left on the calendar. House leaders have said that their target adjournment date is  Dec. 12. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has warned that he might keep his chamber open the week before Christmas in order to complete unfinished business.​