Just two weeks ago, Republicans handed President Obama a humiliating defeat at the polls, winning full control of Congress. But already, party leaders fear that the conservative uproar over the president’s immigration actions will doom any hopes for a stable period of GOP governance.
The moves announced Thursday night by Obama — which will protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation — have sparked an immediate and widening rebellion among tea party lawmakers that top Republicans are struggling to contain.
Despite expanded powers and some new titles, soon-to-be Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) remain sharply limited in their ability to persuade their most conservative members. The duo has been thrust back into the same cycle of intraparty warfare that has largely defined the GOP during the Obama years and that has hurt the party’s brand among the broader electorate.
“It is the first real challenge for Boehner and McConnell together,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a Boehner ally. “They’d like to wipe the slate clean for when they start up next year, with this situation behind us.”
In his prime-time speech from the East Room of the White House, Obama blamed Republicans for forcing his hand by refusing to approve immigration reform and told them, “Pass a bill.” He also cast the issue in moral terms, quoting Scripture to bolster his case.
But comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely to pass a Republican-held Congress, because of partisan hostilities in Washington. Still, GOP leaders badly want to show the country that the party can govern constructively, even if it is not clear whether they can keep their raucous conference united.
McConnell and Boehner, for example, want to approve a long-term spending bill at least through the early part of next year — part of an effort to limit theatrical confrontations with Obama and focus on tax reform and other Republican-friendly issues.
But conservatives inside and outside Congress want to use the budget process as a battleground to wage war against Obama and his immigration program. The proposed gambit raises the specter of another government shutdown, akin to the one that damaged Republicans last year.
The debate is also a test of whether the party can contain the controversial and sometimes offensive comments that have often hindered attempts to bolster support for Republicans among Hispanics. After tea party firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said on Wednesday that protected immigrants would become “illiterate” voters, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) winced.
“Unfortunate, unfair, unnecessary, unwise,” said Graham, who is close to party leaders.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate from the Philadelphia exurbs, said the leadership is asking his colleagues to “not play into the president’s hands.”
“The president wants to see an angry and intemperate response, thinking the Republicans will do something that leads to a shutdown,” Dent said. “Don’t take the bait, and don’t have a hysterical reaction. We can be strong, rational and measured.”
Republican leaders are considering several moves they say would be forceful responses to the president while also keeping the government funded. Ideas being floated include filing a lawsuit over Obama’s executive authority, pursuing stand-alone legislation on immigration policy and removing funding for immigration agencies.
Another option — funding the government until the end of the fiscal year and then rescinding parts of immigration-related funding — is favored by the leadership and championed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). His office has issued a memo urging members to avoid using government funding as the means of dissent and warning that some immigration agencies would not be affected since they operate on user fees.
“We are considering a variety of options,” McConnell said Thursday in a floor speech. He suggested that his preference would be for Republicans to avoid becoming mired in a fiscal clash during the lame-duck session, shortly before the GOP takes control of the Senate in January.
Many conservative lawmakers, however, are shrugging off pleas from leadership. Furious with the president, they are planning a series of immediate and hard-line actions that could have sweeping consequences. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Wednesday that Obama’s executive action should be met with a refusal to vote on any more of his nominees, and on Thursday, he compared the action with the ancient Catiline conspiracy, a plot to overthrow the Roman Republic.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), likely the next chairman of the budget committee, has advocated for a series of stopgap spending bills with the intent of pressuring the president to relent. Sessions is the featured speaker at a Heritage Foundation event Friday morning in response to Obama’s moves, a couple of hours after a scheduled Boehner news conference.
And Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) — one of the loudest voices on the right — has hinted at bringing up impeachment measures. “We have constitutional authority to do a string of things. [Impeachment] would be the very last option, but I would not rule it out,” King said Thursday on CNN.
Amid the chatter over strategy, it is the tone of outraged rank-and-file members that most worries GOP elders. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, they do not want to see Republicans tagged by Democrats as hostile toward Latinos and other minorities.
“It only takes a couple” of comments for an unflattering narrative to build about the Republican response, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “That’s the trouble with having some of these new, young punks around here. They ought to listen to us old geezers.”
In the House, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who has been a prominent backer of comprehensive immigration reform, has been counseling House Republicans about the need to show empathy for undocumented workers as the party rails against the Obama administration, according to GOP aides familiar with his deliberations.
Yet the firestorms have continued to flare, with some Republicans, encouraged by grass-roots activists and conservative media personalities, eschewing the party’s more incremental line and making contentious statements.
Speaking with reporters, Bachmann had said the “social cost” of Obama’s immigration policies would be extensive, with “millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language.”
When pressed on why she used the term “illiterate,” Bachmann said, “I’m not using a pejorative term against people who are non-American citizens. I’m only repeating what I heard from Hispanic Americans down at the border.”
On Friday, Bachmann and Steve King plan to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to meet with officials to showcase their opposition to the president and cast themselves as leading Republican voices.
Other Republicans have called for a proactive legislative response beginning early next year, rallying behind a strategy that would take away government funding as the main battleground and turning toward specific policy areas.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential presidential candidate, said Republicans must signal that in spite of their disagreements with the president, they are committed to reform. “This country needs to deal with immigration,” he said in an interview.