White House Isn't Backing Down on Immigration

Republicans are warning the president not to take executive action on immigration. The White House thinks it can call their bluff.

The White House is seen behind a dual layer of fencing on October 3, 2014.

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

House Speaker John Boehner warned President Barack Obama on Thursday not to take unilateral action on immigration, telling reporters that when "you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself."

The administration's response: We'll take that risk.

"His pledge is to do the most he can do under his legal authority to fix the broken immigration system," senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Friday at a Bloomberg breakfast.  

“We’re going to do what we think is best for the country,” Pfeiffer said. “If [Republicans] have disagreements about the things we do, they have the capacity to legislate.”

The bravado comes as Obama and party leaders try to position themselves for the new politics of Washington, now that Republicans are poised to take control of the Senate. The president has invited top congressional leaders to lunch at White House on Friday afternoon.

Going forward, White House aides say, they plan more meetings, calls, and meals. They're closely watching Republicans over the lame duck session that begins next week as a signal for the future.  Passage of such items as a government spending bill, a new authorization for the use of military force against Islamic State militants, and Ebola funding, would send a positive sign,  Pfeiffer said.

"If you are going to draw a Venn diagram of the things that Republicans will pass and the things that we would sign, there's going to be a space in the middle," he said. "It's not going be huge, but we'll look for everything."

Republicans have drawn a line in the sand at Obama's vow to issue an executive order on immigration that potentially would stave off deportations for several million illegal immigrants.  If Obama does that, Boehner said, he will "poison the well" for future cooperation with the GOP.  Even some of Obama's closest allies are urging him to delay. 

But the White House remains doubtful that even if Obama were to delay action, Republicans could marshal the votes to pass immigration legislation–or much else of significance.

"We've had significant trouble with Boehner over the years where he's come very close to a deal with us and then been unable to deliver his caucus," said Pfeffier. "I don't believe that that's going to get easier for him."