Obama’s Vow to Go Solo on Immigration Splits Republicans

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) annual Women's Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014.

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Republicans are warning President Barack Obama that he’ll poison relations with Congress if he takes executive action to ease U.S. immigration laws. For Obama, it’s a risk worth taking.

By delaying deportation for some undocumented workers, as he’s expected to do, the president would solidify his support among Hispanics, the nation’s largest minority group. At the same time, he’d force Republicans into a divisive debate that may alienate those crucial voters before the 2016 elections.

Republicans are split, with some who say the party must take steps to temper its stance against undocumented immigrants and others who consider them lawbreakers who don’t deserve what many label amnesty. Any move by Obama would put that dispute on public display in a way that could be damaging to Republicans.

“The right wing will go nuts,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman who recently spoke with House Speaker John Boehner on immigration.

And there isn’t much Republicans can do about it. If Obama’s action sours the climate for legislative compromise -- including on other issues like infrastructure spending and health care -- Republicans will bear much of the blame as they’ll soon have majority control of Congress.

Obama has vowed to act before the end of the year, though the White House won’t say what his executive order will entail. Among other measures, it could include halting deportations of the parents of children brought to the U.S. illegally. Or it may be broader, covering many of the 11 million people included in a bill passed in June 2013 by the Democratic-led Senate.

Critical Bloc

National demographic shifts, particularly in competitive states such as Nevada and Florida, make the support of Hispanic voters critical to both political parties.

Obama -- who won 71 percent of the vote of Latinos in 2012 -- disappointed them in September by holding off on plans to delay deportation of some undocumented workers. His goal was to protect Democrats such as Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas who were facing close elections in Republican-leaning states.

Now, those Democrats have lost their elections and the politics of the immigration issue have been transformed, with Republicans winning control of both chambers.

A number of newly elected Republicans, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa, will come to the Senate on a campaign pledge to crack down on what they say is amnesty for illegal immigrants.

2016 Election

While that message helped energize voters in those states, it risks undermining a Republican Party that wants to reclaim the White House and is facing Senate battles in 2016 that will be fought on less friendly territory, including in Democratic-leaning Illinois and Pennsylvania.

“There’s a tremendous amount of fear among Republican leaders,” said David Johnson, a party strategist who worked on former Senator Bob Dole’s 1988 presidential bid.

Vulnerable Republicans and presidential aspirants will come under pressure from the party’s base to push back, including with border-security measures, or be bludgeoned by primary challengers, Johnson said.

At the same time, “if they alienate the Latino vote in pivotal states like Nevada, they can kiss away their majority and any hopes of gaining the White House” in 2016, he said.

That partly explains the heated Republican rhetoric about Obama’s plans to issue executive orders.

Poisoning Well

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has warned that action by the president would invite “big trouble” and “poison the well” with Congress. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is poised to become majority leader, likened it to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said such a move would be akin to “pulling the pin out of a hand grenade.”

Others, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, have suggested they might be willing to shut down the government over the issue, threatening to block presidential action.

“If you thought Obamacare was divisive,” Representative Mario Diaz-Balart said in an interview, “this has the potential to really just tear the country apart.” The Florida Republican was among a bipartisan group of House lawmakers on the cusp of an immigration deal this year before a surge of Central American children on the U.S.-Mexico border halted their efforts.

The dire warnings have done little to change Obama’s determination to act, which he doubled down on last week in a White House meeting with congressional leaders.

Obama is also facing demands from the Democratic Party’s base of pro-immigration activists, who were outspoken in their anger over his decision to delay executive orders until after the Nov. 4 election.

Walking Tightrope

Republicans have been walking a tightrope on the immigration issue for several years.

The Senate bill passed last year includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Boehner has refused to bring it up for a vote, worried it would split the party and provoke a challenge from Tea Party-aligned members.

His concerns were underscored by then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in a June Virginia primary by Tea Party favorite Dave Brat. Brat hammered Cantor in the final weeks of the campaign for backing amnesty, which Cantor denied was his position. His defeat signaled the end of the House’s attempts at comprehensive immigration legislation.

Instead, the House has passed piecemeal bills that would enhance border security, bolster an agricultural guest-worker program, increase the number of visas for high-skilled workers, and require employers to start using an e-verify system. The Senate hasn’t taken them up, with Democratic leaders saying they’ve already passed broad legislation.

Boehner’s Request

Now, Boehner is asking Obama to hold off on his executive orders so the new Congress can again address immigration legislatively.

“Boehner wants to do something on immigration; we have four bills that made it through the House,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Republican ally of the speaker, said in an interview.

The Obama administration doesn’t agree that the politics within the Republican Party have changed.

During an interview with Bloomberg News reporters and editors last week, White House aide Dan Pfeiffer noted that Boehner, in a news conference, was unwilling to pledge that he would allow a vote on a bigger immigration bill even if the president agreed to another delay.

Meanwhile, the political peril of executive action for Republicans is clear.

Forcing a congressional immigration debate will put the party on the spot while giving a bigger megaphone to lawmakers such as Representative Steve King of Iowa.

King has drawn rebukes for saying many undocumented aliens had “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” He also once called for an electrified fence along the Mexican border.

“Steve King cannot be the face and voice of the Republican Party on immigration issues if the party is going to prosper in national elections,” Cullen said.

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