By Laura Meckler and Kristina Peterson
Conservatives Want to Use Spending Bill to Prevent Any Unilateral Move, Setting Up Possible Clash With Their Leadership
A bloc of Republican lawmakers is seeking to use must-pass spending legislation in the final weeks of the year to place limits on President Barack Obama ’s ability to loosen immigration rules, threatening to split the party in Congress.
Mr. Obama has said that he would act unilaterally by year’s end to change immigration policy, likely by giving many illegal immigrants new protections against deportation. Republicans and some Democrats have said Mr. Obama shouldn’t act without congressional approval.
Now, some Republicans are pushing for Congress to make a move before Mr. Obama does. More than 50 House lawmakers have signed a letter saying that language barring the president from acting alone should be attached to legislation needed to keep the government operating after Dec. 11, when its current funding expires.
Others in the party, including GOP leaders, are wary of forcing a budget showdown with the president over the issue, saying voters are eager for politicians to work together. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who is poised to become Senate majority leader in January, has said flatly that there will be no government shutdown like the one in 2013 that was politically harmful to his party.
The result is that barely a week after their broad election victories, party leaders will have to decide whether to override conservatives’ demands in favor of a more pragmatic approach. Party leaders also will have to decide when and how hard to fight the president over immigration, an issue that is important to the growing bloc of Hispanic voters who are expected to carry more sway in the 2016 elections than they did this fall.
At issue is whether some of the 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to live and work openly, and whether Mr. Obama has the authority to allow that without legislation. Immigration advocates say there is legal precedent and a humanitarian imperative for Mr. Obama to act. Republicans say he is in danger of exceeding his authority.
“Everybody has said they want to do something to stop his recklessness. If we have an opportunity to actually do something rather than complain…why shouldn’t we?” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.).
Mr. Salmon organized the letter urging the House Appropriations Committee to include language in the spending bill to bar funding for any executive action in the coming spending bill.
GOP leaders made clear in the days after the election that they wanted to set their own agenda when they control of both chambers next year without any lingering fights about spending for the current fiscal year. The leaders also want to look for other ways to push back against the president’s moves on immigration, said a senior Senate GOP aide.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R., Ky.) said it would be unrealistic to expect the president would sign a spending bill that included the immigration language.
“I don’t want a shutdown,” he said. “You should not take a hostage that you can’t shoot.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said views within the party differed on how to handle the matter. “I don’t think there’s any consensus yet,” he added.
Some Republicans argue that if they cannot move a spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year with the immigration language attached, they should pass a short-term funding measure and revisit the matter early next year.
The controversy stems from expectations that Mr. Obama will expand a program that gives certain illegal immigrants who are settled in the U.S. temporary permission to stay and the chance to get work permits.
Mr. Obama’s legal rationale is likely to be that the government doesn’t have the resources to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants, so those with deep ties to the U.S., and who are unlikely to be deported, should be allowed to live and work openly in the country.
The president is under intense pressure from immigration advocates and Latino groups to protect as many people as possible. Senate Democratic leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, also have encouraged the president to take action, despite GOP assertions this would derail bipartisan cooperation.
“The president should use the authority he has to try to make sure the law is enforced fairly and justly—to protect this country and be sensitive to the real-life struggles these families are facing,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.).
White House officials say they have not decided on the timing of an announcement, but one factor has been a desire to push it past Dec. 11, when the existing funding measure expires, in hopes that the two issues would not become entangled. But many Republicans are now pushing for congressional action even before an announcement.
A half-dozen Republican senators, including Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas, wrote to Mr. Reid to demand that the Senate block Mr. Obama’s move. They vowed to “use all procedural means necessary” to address the matter.
Separately, Sens. Cruz and Mike Lee (R., Utah) said they would question Loretta Lynch, Mr. Obama’s nominee for attorney general, about whether his plans on immigration are “constitutional and legal.” In the House, Rep. Mo Brooks (R., Ala.) said he supports filing a lawsuit against Mr. Obama over the expected immigration action.
Conservatives said they aren’t concerned about accusations of prompting a government shutdown, because they believe voters endorsed their views on immigration. “They’re tired of the president circumventing Congress,” said Rep. Randy Weber (R., Texas), “They’ve given us, Republicans, both houses” of Congress.