Republican leaders show little interest in returning to the issue after the Homeland Security fiasco.
Singed by their defeat in the battle over Homeland Security funding, Republicans aren’t about to renew their fight against President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration anytime soon.
When the GOP-controlled Senate bent to Democratic demands to fund the Department of Homeland Security, effectively undercutting conservatives who were willing to allow the agency to shut down until Obama backed down, there was talk of Senate GOP leaders returning to the immigration issue to find new ways to thwart Obama’s orders.
But few within the GOP expect any kind of immigration debate in the Senate in the foreseeable future. The issue has been relegated to the back burner as Republicans instead focus on the budget, trade deals and, possibly, tax reform.
“At this point, we have a lot of other issues to do,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who authored stand-alone legislation to block Obama’s immigration directives. “I’m very happy the Department of Homeland Security is funded, and I think the issue of the president’s overreach with his executive order of last November is probably going to end up being decided by the courts. And that’s not a bad option.”
Senate Republican leadership aides also indicated that the chamber is not likely to return to the Collins legislation in the next several weeks — a work period that will be dominated by anti-trafficking legislation, nominations, a fiscal 2016 budget and perhaps an Iran bill.
In the House, committees are humming along on some immigration bills, but leadership has shown no indication when — or if — they will come to the floor.
The inaction on immigration comes as the GOP is trying to improve its standing among Latinos in the 2016 presidential election. An “autopsy” of the party’s problems after the 2012 election warned that Republicans “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink.”
Reform advocates were buoyed when the Senate overwhelmingly passed a sweeping bipartisan bill in June 2013. But the measure stalled in the House. And immigration, until at least after the next election, is more likely to be fodder for the campaign trail than congressional action.
And if there was any question, Obama’s executive actions, which are deeply despised by Republicans, likely extinguished any remaining prospects of this White House working with the GOP on immigration. In a meeting with advocates last month, Obama said he was not hopeful this Republican-led Congress would pass immigration bills that he would be able to sign, one person who attended the meeting said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) left himself the option of bringing back the measure to stymie Obama’s directives. And GOP leaders, wary of criticism from conservatives who are girding for combat over immigration, won’t close the door entirely on revisiting it.
“I think you’ll see it in some form again, sooner or later. I just don’t know when,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “We’ve got a lot of important stuff to do.”
Practically speaking, if Republicans were to go there, Democrats would try to force vulnerable GOP senators to take tough votes on politically charged immigration amendments and eat up valuable Senate floor time. At the same time, conservatives aren’t prepared to let McConnell and his lieutenants off the hook.
“Aside from some strong rhetoric on Nov. 20, GOP leaders haven’t put forward a strategy to roll back Obama’s amnesty,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a group that endorsed the tactic of linking DHS funding to immigration.
Conservative lawmakers haven’t yet hatched their next strategy to battle Obama’s immigration policy in Congress. But one option is including language killing the executive actions in other must-pass bills. They could also single out specific elements — such as refundable tax credits that could be obtained by undocumented immigrants — and push to include those in other key bills, one Senate GOP aide said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who endorsed the Collins strategy during the immigration battle, accused the GOP leadership last week of “capitulating on amnesty” and encouraging McConnell to block a confirmation vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch. But Cruz would not say whether he wants leadership to return to the Collins proposal.
“You’d have to ask them that,” he demurred.
At the opposite end of the GOP political spectrum, Collins also isn’t prodding leaders to take up her bill again. She and other Republicans would be happy to let the courts rule.
Obama’s executive actions, which could protect more than 4 million people from deportation and give them legal work permits, are on hold after a federal judge blocked the programs last month. The Obama administration has asked to lift the injunction while the court decision is being appealed.
“I still think it’s important for everyone to go on record on the issue because it is our constitutional prerogatives that are being stepped all over,” Collins said. “But I’m also satisfied with having the courts rule.”
Meanwhile, in the House, the prospects of some Republican-authored immigration measures are unclear.
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, passed legislation that would require all employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure all their workers are allowed to work legally in the United States. Separately, it passed a measure dealing with unaccompanied migrant children, whose numbers spiked at the southern border last summer.
Earlier this year, conservatives rebelled against a border-security measure written by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas). The bill was later pulled from the House floor.
“The speaker has always supported a step-by-step approach on this issue,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. “Chairmen McCaul and Goodlatte continue their work on border security and interior enforcement legislation.”
Leadership also had no update on a resolution to authorize a lawsuit against the Obama administration over immigration — similar to what House Republicans did on Obamacare — a proposal that Boehner announced in January.
Other moderate House Republicans want to go further. At an event Monday in Chicago, a trio of GOP congressmen from Illinois — Adam Kinzinger, Aaron Schock and Bob Dold — will push for a legislative overhaul that includes border security, changes to the legal immigration system, and legal status for those here illegally, organizers said. Gov. Bruce Rauner and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are expected to attend, too.
In the Senate, Republicans like Jeff Flake of Arizona said the GOP’s fruitless month of trying to fund DHS while simultaneously blocking the White House would have been better spent working on immigration reform. It’s a thought shared by Flake’s Democratic cohorts involved in the Gang of Eight push.
“That’s the solution, not this stuff,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Those sentiments serve as a stark warning to Republican leadership of how messy another debate over immigration could be. One possibility if the Collins bill ever comes up again: The Senate opens debate, Democrats demand a raft of amendments related to their comprehensive immigration plans and the bill dies after partisan squabbling. That might be an interesting political exercise, but not one likely to lead to a bill on Obama’s desk.
Republicans have ambitions of doing tax reform, passing a budget and finally approving a long-term transportation bill. Any of those items probably has a better chance of a payoff than another battle with the White House over immigration.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff on the agenda that we need to get done,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican. Another “unending debate” on immigration, he added, isn’t “necessarily a good idea.