By Manu Raju and Seung Min Kim, POLITICO
Moderate Senate Democrats and a handful of GOP senators are wary of using the Homeland Security spending bill to thwart Obama’s immigration policies.
House Republicans rolled out an aggressive response to President Barack Obama’s immigration policies on Friday, rallying conservatives hungry for a confrontation between the GOP-led Congress and the White House.
But a big hurdle stands in their way: the United States Senate.
Moderate Senate Democrats and a handful of GOP senators are balking at a House plan that would block Obama’s new policy of deferring deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants, along with the administration’s earlier protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally at a young age. While those senators oppose the president’s unilateral moves on immigration, they are wary of linking the issue with a must-pass bill to fund domestic security programs, worried that a stalemate could shut down the Department of Homeland Security.
The opposition from these key senators makes it almost certain that the plan would fail to gain the 60 votes needed to break a Democratic filibuster, reigniting long-festering tension between the House and the Senate that GOP leaders have been eager to avoid.
“I think the defunding action leads us to a potential government shutdown scenario, which is a self-inflicted political wound for Republicans,” Sen. Mark Kirk, a moderate Illinois Republican facing reelection in 2016, said in an interview.
“I don’t want to,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has opposed Obama’s executive action on immigration, said when asked if he’d back the House’s approach. “I really don’t want to.”
The comments speak to the sharp limits Republicans still face in advancing a conservative agenda, despite taking control this week of both houses of Congress for the first time since 2006. While they have their biggest House majority in decades, Republicans are still six votes shy of breaking a Senate filibuster — much less the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
The dynamic presents a fresh test for the newly empowered House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). They must appeal to their conservative base, which is eager to roll back Obama policies over health care, energy and immigration. But lacking votes to enact laws to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, chip away at Obamacare and roll back the White House immigration order, Republican leaders are trying to find a way to score legislative victories without provoking a government shutdown or a national debt default. In essence, they will have to quickly find a Plan B to move their policies — or move on to issues that could garner White House support.
“We’ve got to stop negotiating with ourselves here … based on, ‘What will the Senate do?’ and ‘What will the president do?’” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who has sat in on a series of meetings with leadership this week to determine the legislative strategy on this issue. “We are at a point in time where the American people expect us to do what is right, and that policy to do what is right should not be based on what the Senate may do.”
Tension between the chambers is hardly a new dynamic. For decades, the fast-moving House — with its rules that allow the majority to rubber-stamp legislation — has long been consistently thwarted by the more deliberative Senate, where the minority has enormous power to derail legislation. With liberals dominating Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) caucus and a powerful White House veto pen behind them, Republicans are bound to face a recurring dilemma over the next two years: Should they fight mainly to show a contrast with Democrats, or should they compromise and water down legislation that could upset the right?
The battle over the homeland security funding bill presents Republicans with their first real test.
“I’m a little leery about it,” Republican Sen. Dean Heller, whose home state of Nevada has an influential Latino voting bloc, said of the House GOP plans. “I just want to make sure those individuals that are affected by that legislation are treated respectfully. I just want to be very, very careful that we do it in the right manner, and we don’t do it in a way that is offensive.”
On Friday, House Republicans unveiled an immigration plan that moves significantly to the right of what they had considered earlier in the week, which would have solely targeted the executive actions Obama announced in November.
The new proposal would block Obama’s post-election move, gut a 2012 directive that shielded young undocumented immigrants from being deported and thwart a series of 2011 administration memos meant to limit deportations of people who weren’t criminals or serial immigration violators.
The House plan also includes measures to toughen enforcement of immigration laws, including by reviving a 2008 program known as Secure Communities, which called on local law enforcement officials to provide federal immigration authorities with fingerprints of people booked into jails. The administration dropped that program as part of its executive actions last November.
Obama’s latest executive actions could grant nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants a three-year reprieve from deportations and give them accompanying work permits. Democrats and immigrant-rights activists largely supported the moves, but they face legal challenge from two dozen states – led by Texas – that contend the action is unconstitutional. Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, along with about two dozen other House and Senate conservatives, filed an amicus brief supporting the states’ lawsuit, which a federal district court in Southern Texas will hear next week.
The GOP measures, slated to come to the House floor next week, are the opening salvo in what could be a weeks-long battle to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees critical national operations in addition to immigration and border enforcement. Money for the agency runs through Feb. 27, and the House plans to add the immigration plan as an amendment to the $39.7 billion funding bill.
Polls show voters take issue with how the immigration changes were enacted – not necessarily the substance. A CNN/ORC poll from late November showed that while 50 percent of voters thought Obama’s immigration moves were “about right,” only 41 percent supported doing so through executive action. About 56 percent said executive action was not the right way to go, something that could put moderate Democrats in a tough spot.
But so far, the House push isn’t gaining much traction among centrist Senate Democrats.
“I’m not looking for a political fight,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who warned last fall that Obama’s executive actions would “poison” prospects for compromise, said in an e-mailed statement. “I’m looking to solve a problem.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats and has sharply criticized executive action, poured cold water when asked about the House proposal to block the policies through the appropriations process.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” King said in an interview.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he would oppose the House plan “unless they’ve got a solution that will fix” the immigration system.
Speaking to reporters this week, McConnell made clear that the fight over immigration would not jeopardize funding for Homeland Security.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to fund the department,” McConnell said.
Republican leaders know full well the challenges of enacting their conservative policies. They are intentionally starting the process early so they can potentially modify their immigration proposals to find enough votes to secure passage and fund the department.
“I suspect there will be several, probably, iterations of it before it’s all said and done,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican. “But we’ll see. Maybe we find the sweet spot that addresses the issues as we see it and something that the president feels like he needs to sign.”
But if Republicans give in and pass a clean funding bill that doesn’t stop the immigration actions, they are bound to upset many on the right — especially after GOP leaders urged conservatives to hold their fire on a spending fight in the lame-duck session of the last Congress. Back then, they argued they would have more power to fight Obama in the new GOP-controlled Capitol early this year.
“We don’t want to get in the position of negotiating against ourselves and saying Senate’s gonna do this, Senate’s gonna do that,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who wrote much of the legislation overriding Obama on immigration. “We’ll work the will of the House here.”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the moderate who once served as the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that while she opposed the president’s immigration moves, “my inclination is that we should challenge it in court on constitutional grounds. But I’ll take a look at what’s been done.”
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a long-time supporter of a comprehensive immigration bill who has also criticized the executive action, seemed ready to fight the Obama plan through the funding process.
“It may not be too bad to shut down a small portion of the government, depending on what you’re shutting down,” he said, referring to “non-essential” services
He quickly added this when asked about a GOP Plan B: “It has not jelled yet.”