The White House Is Spoiling for a Fight on Immigration

Obama seems determined to push ahead, despite the fears of some Democrats.

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 27: NARAL Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) speaks at a luncheon to mark the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 27, 2009 in Washington, DC. The lunch, hosted by NARAL Pro-Choice America, was held to celebrate the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. 
National Journal
James Oliphant
Aug. 29, 2014, 12:24 a.m.

The White House ap­pears to be mov­ing full-speed ahead on an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der that would provide wide­spread pro­tec­tion to il­leg­al im­mig­rants from de­port­a­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans””and maybe some Demo­crats””be damned.

Those close to the pro­cess ex­pect an or­der in the first few weeks of Septem­ber””and ex­pect it, in the words of one im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ate, to be “sig­ni­fic­ant.”

White House aides stress that noth­ing has been fi­nal­ized. Yet the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pos­ture has been one of an­ti­cip­at­ing””even in­vit­ing””a highly pub­lic con­front­a­tion with Re­pub­lic­ans over the is­sue. And while the con­cerns of vul­ner­able Sen­ate Demo­crats in key races are be­ing taken in­to ac­count, they don’t seem to be per­suad­ing the White House to de­vi­ate from its course””sug­gest­ing that the mat­ter is viewed less in terms of the polit­ics of the mo­ment and more in terms of Pres­id­ent Obama’s long-term lib­er­al leg­acy.

“Have no doubt, in the ab­sence of con­gres­sion­al ac­tion, I’m go­ing to do what I can to make sure the sys­tem works bet­ter,” Obama told re­port­ers at the White House on Thursday.

Even as the ul­ti­mate scope of the or­der re­mains un­clear, Obama is in a po­s­i­tion where he al­most has to go big, be­cause no mat­ter what he does, it will be con­strued that way by the GOP. Already, this week, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, among oth­ers, has sug­ges­ted that the or­der could fuel a show­down over fund­ing the gov­ern­ment at the end of the month. An­oth­er law­suit, too, is nearly in­ev­it­able.

Obama’s aides have been an­ti­cip­at­ing this re­sponse al­most since the end of June, when the pres­id­ent first pledged to act on the is­sue in the face of a para­lyzed Con­gress. At a break­fast with re­port­ers last month, Dan Pfeif­fer, a top ad­viser, seemed to rel­ish the idea of a GOP freak-out, say­ing he was cer­tain the pres­id­ent’s or­der would pro­voke an “ag­gress­ive” re­sponse. And this week White House press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est has been dis­missive of Re­pub­lic­an threats.

All of it is rooted in the be­lief that paint­ing Re­pub­lic­ans as ex­trem­ists will­ing to shut down the gov­ern­ment (or im­peach the pres­id­ent) over the is­sue helps both Obama and midterm Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates. But that view isn’t uni­ver­sal.

“There is grow­ing con­cern about the is­sue creep­ing in­to ‘14 in a bad way,” says one Demo­crat­ic strategist. “No ques­tion where the long-term ad­vant­age lies, but right now, in an ugly year, it’s rais­ing an ugli­er head.”

Nervous Sen­ate Demo­crats such as Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hamp­shire in re­cent days have urged Obama to go slow. “Sen. Shaheen be­lieves Con­gress must ad­dress our broken im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem with a com­pre­hens­ive fix and would not sup­port a piece­meal ap­proach is­sued by ex­ec­ut­ive or­der,” says Shaheen spokes­man Shri­p­al Shah.

New Hamp­shire has been one state where the im­mig­ra­tion is­sue””brought to a head by the bor­der crisis earli­er this sum­mer””is be­ing cred­ited for nar­row­ing the gap between Shaheen and her likely chal­lenger in the fall, former Sen. Scott Brown. A re­cent poll showed Shaheen’s lead over Brown, once in double di­gits, to be crum­bling. Brown, more than most can­did­ates, has been hit­ting the ex­ec­ut­ive-au­thor­ity is­sue hard. “Im­mig­ra­tion has been a top-tier is­sue in New Hamp­shire for years,” says Jeb Brad­ley, a former GOP con­gress­man in the state.

Shaheen’s par­tic­u­lar prob­lem is that she sup­por­ted both the com­pre­hens­ive re­form bill passed last year that died in the House and backed Obama’s uni­lat­er­al move in 2012 to provide de­port­a­tion re­lief to so-called “dream­ers”“”chil­dren brought across the bor­der by un­doc­u­mented par­ents. Any cri­ti­cism now can be framed as back­track­ing. Oth­er at-risk Demo­crats such as Hagan and Pry­or also sup­por­ted the re­form meas­ure.

Moreover, once it be­came clear that the House wasn’t go­ing to act on the Sen­ate bill, high-pro­file Sen­ate lead­ers such as Chuck Schu­mer of New York called for Obama to act on his own. Schu­mer’s of­fice said that he hasn’t shif­ted from that stance and has not asked the White House to delay the or­der un­til after the midterms.

In­deed, there’s a school of thought that if Obama waits un­til after the midterms to act, he may be do­ing so in ad­vance of a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate that will ded­ic­ate it­self to rolling back the or­der. Do­ing it now at least af­fords the pos­sib­il­ity that the en­su­ing con­tro­versy will gal­van­ize base voters and ward off a han­dover of the cham­ber to the GOP.

Un­for­tu­nately for Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents, however, the map af­fords them very little op­por­tun­ity to use the is­sue to drive His­pan­ic turnout. The only state where it could con­ceiv­ably make a pos­it­ive dif­fer­ence is in Col­or­ado, where Sen. Mark Ud­all is matched up in a tight race with Rep. Cory Gard­ner.

Oth­er­wise, it’s more than pos­sible in states such as Arkan­sas, Michigan, New Hamp­shire, and North Car­o­lina that Obama’s or­der will feed the Re­pub­lic­an nar­rat­ive of an out-of-con­trol chief ex­ec­ut­ive, per­haps serving as the wedge is­sue that puts the GOP can­did­ates there over the top. The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee points to polls that show that a ma­jor­ity of in­de­pend­ents who fa­vor le­gis­lat­ive re­form op­pose uni­lat­er­al ac­tion.

Com­pound­ing the is­sue from a mes­saging stand­point is that Obama spent much of the first part of the year talk­ing about how he lacked the power to make bold moves to re­shape the na­tion’s im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem. Those words will cer­tainly be used against Obama and Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates in GOP cam­paigns.

But the White House ap­pears to not be overly con­cerned about any of this””and that’s in line with its ap­proach to the midterms to date. While the pres­id­ent has been a vo­ra­cious fun­draiser for the party, he hasn’t held back from pur­su­ing what might be called leg­acy is­sues””even if those ac­tions might harm mod­er­ate Demo­crats. (A sim­il­ar view helped cost Demo­crats the House in 2010.)

Im­mig­ra­tion is one ex­ample. An­oth­er is cli­mate change. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed lim­its on coal-fired power plants were re­leased this sum­mer, much to the con­sterna­tion of Sen. Mary Landrieu, fight­ing for her sur­viv­al in en­ergy-pro­du­cing Louisi­ana. And the ad­min­is­tra­tion is pur­su­ing a glob­al cli­mate agree­ment that could be ex­ecuted without con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al, an­oth­er ac­tion likely to feed that build­ing GOP nar­rat­ive. Nor has the ad­min­is­tra­tion shown any in­clin­a­tion to ap­prove the Key­stone XL pipeline, which would at least give someone like Landrieu a pos­it­ive talk­ing point.

The long-term polit­ic­al view is that grant­ing wide­spread de­port­a­tion re­lief will ac­crue to the Demo­crats’ ad­vant­age in 2016, help­ing to en­sure that the Obama Co­ali­tion doesn’t fray, the pres­id­ent is suc­ceeded by a Demo­crat who will safe­guard his sig­na­ture ac­com­plish­ments, and the Sen­ate, if lost, is re­gained. “This will be a gen­er­a­tion­al-de­fin­ing move,” says Frank Sharry, pres­id­ent of Amer­ica’s Voice, which has been lob­by­ing for a dra­mat­ic ex­ec­ut­ive or­der.

If some eggs are broken along the way, so be it.

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