Republicans itching for a showdown on immigration

Posted at 12:32 PM, Feb 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-02 17:51:51-05

Republicans are sworn to destroy President Obama's executive action on immigration. But do they have any effective weapons left?

Signs large and small all over Capitol Hill suggest that GOP outrage against an action they see as unconstitutional presidential overreach is finding little practical traction. The matter is set to hit the Senate floor this week, where Democrats have pledged to back up Obama.

Quick recap: Late last year President Obama said he would use his discretion to defer the threat of deportation for roughly 4 million undocumented immigrations who have immediate family members who are U.S. citizens. He also expanded the number of undocumented younger people who can avoid deportation, if they entered the U.S. as children.

Republicans, locked in a long immigration battle with Democrats and within their own party, raged against the decision: Obama was overstepping his authority by altering a law only Congress can change.

The issue is huge for Republicans, and you could tell in Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch had nothing to do with Obama's action and could do little to undo it if confirmed. But that didn't stop nearly every committee Republican from using the forum to rail against the policy.

Several, including Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Lynch's failure to repudiate the legal justification for Obama's action disqualifies her from the AG job. Cruz spoke to reporters later and put pressure on GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to use Lynch's nomination to get tough.

“That is the decision the majority leader is going to have to make. I believe we should use every constitutional tool available to stop the president’s unconstitutional executive action," Cruz told Roll Call.

But that same day, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah,  a longtime Judiciary member and its former chairman, said he would support Lynch's nomination.

Now the issue hits the Senate floor. House Republicans voted to block Obama's action in a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security. Obama threatened a veto, but he would face pressure not to shut DHS down with a veto if the Senate followed suit.

You'll recall that 60 votes are needed in the Senate for even marginally controversial bills. Republicans are 54 strong, and so: will half a dozen Democrats back a repeal of Obama's immigration actions? A letter from Democrats to Sen. McConnell answered that question. "The House bill cannot pass the Senate," the united Democrats proclaimed.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters this week that Republicans would have to "pass the DHS bill, debate immigration a separate time."

"The Republicans should have learned their lesson" from previous politically botched government shutdowns, Schumer said.

Republican leaders can count votes and so they see where this is headed. Still the get-tough pressure from Cruz and many other GOP conservatives is on them, not on Obama. That may help explain why House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told his conference last week that he was getting ready to take the issue to court. He would sue Obama over his authority to take the immigration actions.

The lawsuit may or may not be successful, but one thing is clear: Lawmakers tend not to take a grievance to the judges if they think they have the votes to solve it themselves.

Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.

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