House GOP Makes an Aggressive Opening Bet on Immigration

Republicans want to attack a signature Obama program, but it’s not clear the Senate will play along.

Bolivians Gustavo Mariaca (L) and his brother Diego (standing) fill out paperwork under the 'Dream Act' August 15, 2012 at the National Immigration Forum in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Jan. 11, 2015, 2:09 p.m.

House Republicans will make their first bet in a long-term political gamble this week, taking aggressive and broad swipes against President Obama’s immigration policy in the face of dubious Senate support and a seemingly insurmountable veto threat.

Assuaging the conservative wing of their conference, House Republicans will vote to dismantle a series of White House immigration actions ranging back to Obama’s first term. Among them are a measure from 2012 that defers deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the country at a young age and Obama’s executive action from last year that will grant temporary work status and deportation deferrals to millions more immigrants.

The measures will be tacked on to a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security through the end of the fiscal year, setting up a showdown both Republicans and Democrats hope to exploit. Each side has already cautioned the other about endangering national security for political gain, some pointing to the terror attack against a magazine in Paris as reason enough to quickly fund DHS.

“We want to get this to the president’s desk so that we can get a signature, funding Homeland Security at a very [tenuous] time in the world,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers said Friday. “I would wonder whether the president would have real deep misgivings about not signing a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security.”

“We all know that we are all vulnerable in all the free world,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said later Friday in a colloquy on the House floor. “I would hope that we would have nothing included in the bill which would be very controversial, reflecting our differences, when the underlying bill, I think, is not controversial.”

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are taking a wait-and-see approach. Staff for several members said Friday that they were still reading through the bill—which was released Friday afternoon—and would have to discuss the issue as a conference before making any announcements one way or the other.

Senate Democrats are less reticent. Two senior Senate Democratic aides said Friday that the House’s plan would not pass the upper chamber, where Republicans will need to cull at least six Democratic votes for passage.

“It’s not going to pass the Senate, and it’s embarrassing that House GOP leadership has moved so far to the right to cater to the tea party on immigration that even some of their few remaining moderates are leery of the bill. Playing politics with the Department of Homeland Security is going to backfire on them,” one aide said.

A second aide called the bill “a joke,” noting that it caters to conservatives without including any language that would sway or pressure Democrats to support the measure. “It looks like an easy ‘no’ vote,” the aide said.

For now, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate say they will not use the immigration bill to shut down DHS. The department will be funded by Feb. 28, one way or another, they say.

“At the end of the day we’re going to fund the department, obviously,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at a press conference last week, but did not get into specifics.

In reality, national security is probably not at stake. More than 85 percent of DHS employees, particularly those dealing with security and border protection, are considered essential and would show up to work, albeit largely without pay, even if the funding lapses when the short-term bill runs out at the end of February. But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that budget uncertainty still has implications, such as refraining from hiring more Secret Service agents and funding a new, expanded immigration detention facility in Texas.

Hoping to preempt political attacks from the right, House Republicans are firing their opening shot early. They are including a series of measures even GOP members acknowledge will not likely make the finished product, targeting an Obama signature program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

“We’re starting from a conservative standpoint as opposed to negotiating with the Senate before we even pass a bill,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt, who has written text that will likely be included in one of the amendments.

The measures have already alienated some Republicans who represent heavily Latino districts. Rep. Mike Coffman, for instance, who narrowly won reelection in a Colorado race heavily influenced by immigration policy, said he is not sure whether he will support this House plan.

In August, the House took a similar vote to repeal DACA, a measure which passed with a wide margin of Republican support. But, almost a dozen GOP lawmakers voted nay, including Coffman and Rep. Jeff Denham, another Republican who is friendly to immigration reforms and expressed his disappointment last week with the proposed amendment.

Yet with the largest GOP majority in more than a generation, the measures are likely to glide through the chamber.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released his own, similar immigration legislation on Thursday. Johnson’s bill would also prevent the administration from using funding to enact the president’s recent executive action on immigration, as well as to support the administration’s moves to raise the bar for deportations and Obama’s 2012 executive order affecting the children of illegal immigrants. Unlike the House bill, Johnson’s legislation does not include the overall funding for the department.

A McConnell spokesman said Friday that the leader had no further comment on the issue and would not until he had had a chance to discuss it with his members. Senators are in for an abbreviated week, with members planning to depart Wednesday evening for their annual retreat with House Republicans in Hershey, Pa., where immigration is likely to be a major topic of discussion.

Even if the Senate manages to pass the House bill, it’s certain Obama won’t sign it if it defunds his new program, one immigration advocates and Democrats heavily approve. This sets up yet another showdown: One between the legislative branch and Obama, who has threatened to use his veto power to thwart Republican bills.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, who sits on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said that is a battle in which Democrats will willingly engage, one that at best will be fought to a draw. He said Republicans may be loading the bill with their priorities to end up with only a measure targeting the most recent executive action. But ultimately, even that is a nonstarter for Democrats.

“If they just want the president’s veto, for us, it’s a winner. For them, they probably think it might be a winner to them, it’s a matter of perspective and who your base is,” he said. “But the end result, it’s not going to happen. If they want to pass something, if they want to send messaging, they can do their messaging, but at the end they just cannot override the president’s veto.”

How House Republicans will handle a less palatable bill handed back to them by the Senate remains to be seen. But Rep. Dennis Ross said that regardless of the end result, this is partly an exercise in carrying out an open process, particularly in the wake of a revolt against Speaker John Boehner.

“The biggest argument that has come from some of our dissenters is that the process is flawed,” he said Friday. “We’re trying to make this more inclusive, we’re trying to make sure that all members have a chance to get involved and offer something.”

Alex Brown, Sarah Mimms and Fawn Johnson contributed to this article.
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