House Republicans voted to rebuke President Obama for his unilateral overhaul of the nation’s immigration system Thursday, passing legislation to curb the White House’s ability to protect millions of people from being deported.
But the effort was largely symbolic: The Democratic-controlled Senate plans to ignore the bill, and the White House has said it would veto it.
Still, the political consequence of the bill that passed by a 219-to-197 vote (three Republicans voted present) is the bolstered standing of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), leaving him well positioned to pass an omnibus spending bill next week that would fund the government beyond Dec. 11, when current funds will expire. Some of the most conservative GOP members wanted to tie the immigration defunding measure to the larger government spending bill.
But Boehner’s ease in persuading his unruly conference to forgo a politically risky showdown underscores a new pragmatic streak in his ranks since the GOP’s big gains in the midterm elections.
Rather than governing by crisis as they have in recent years, House Republicans seem eager to move past the tumultuous lame-duck session and look ahead to January, when they will take control of both congressional chambers. They hope to pass bills on tax issues and energy policy and their own versions of immigration reform.
“We’ve learned some hard lessons since the government shutdown last year,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a Boehner ally. “People are swallowing things that are difficult to swallow on all sides of the conference.”
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a firebrand who voted against Boehner in the speaker election two years ago, sponsored the legislation that passed the House on Thursday. It was included as part of the GOP’s response in order to signal to hard-liners that Boehner was listening to their pleas to repudiate the president. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), a new member of the leadership team trusted by many conservatives, orchestrated its consideration and passage.
“We think this is the most practical way to fight the president’s action,” Boehner said at a Thursday news conference. “Frankly, we listened to our members, and we listened to some members who were frankly griping the most. This was their idea of how to proceed.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest warned Thursday that Yoho’s bill “would actually roll back some of the president’s proposed reforms to the immigration system in a way that would actually devote law enforcement resources to deporting ‘dreamers.’ The president does not believe it is an efficient or effective use of law enforcement resources to try to separate these individuals from their families.”
Earnest questioned why the House GOP was taking the time to pass a measure to “roll back” the president’s initiatives rather than voting on a bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate last year. “It’s a little nonsensical for them to be pursuing this course of action but not inconsistent with their previous strategy.”
But Thursday’s vote is only the first step in Boehner’s two-part immigration strategy. Before next week’s vote on the spending bill, the leadership is reassuring conservatives that the immigration fight is only beginning and courting Democrats to support the spending bill.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she is open to backing Boehner if Republicans don’t shift the legislation to curry favor with conservatives in the coming days.
“We want to work together to pass a bill to keep government open as we had to supply the votes last year to open up government,” Pelosi said at a news conference. “Let us supply the votes to keep government open. But we can’t do it unless we have a bill that is worthy of our support.”
Boehner’s package, which the speaker outlined this week in a meeting with GOP members, would include 11 of the 12 appropriations bills, except for the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over immigration enforcement. DHS would be funded only through February to ensure that immigration remains at the fore of the national debate by forcing Congress to again deal with immigration in a few months.
Boehner didn’t rule out stripping the immigration-related funding from the DHS budget. “We’ve had limited options in terms of how we can deal with this. But there are options, and we’re going to continue to pursue this,” he said at the news conference.
Aides said Boehner is treading carefully as he rounds up votes for the spending bill. Republican leaders are keeping tabs on the scope of conservative fury and the various demands being made by members. Some have called on Boehner to not invite Obama to deliver the State of the Union address next year; others have suggested cutting the budgets for White House operations.
But on Thursday, Boehner dismissed such chatter. Asked whether he might not invite Obama to give a State of the Union address, he said: “Listen, the more the president talks about his ideas, the more unpopular he becomes. Why would I want to deprive him of that opportunity?”