The furor over President Barack Obama’s executive action shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation poses hazards for him, including legislative complications, a possible legal challenge and a public backlash.
The risks for Republicans are greater, threatening schisms among the party’s members of Congress through next year, spilling over to the 2016 presidential contest and perhaps costing them votes.
The political assessment is clear from the reaction since Obama’s Nov. 20 announcement: Most Democrats back the move, and they relish the anger from a range of Republican constituencies, from the anti-immigration right to more moderate supporters of reform who resent that the president has put them on the defensive.
Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the Republican leaders in Congress, have a strategy to minimize the fallout: offer irrelevant resolutions condemning the president, cite court challenges to focus on the legal question rather than the substantive one, and nick at some funding for the president’s initiative.
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Although it will cause tension with the anti-immigration bloc, this approach is likely to succeed in the current lame- duck session. But the issue will keep coming back.
That’s because much of the Republican base is anti- immigration and would like to deport most of the 11.5 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
That was evident in the past two presidential primary cycles, when Mitt Romney, once sympathetic to immigration reform, responded to rank-and-file pressure and flipped. He attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as soft on immigration.
It also was evident earlier this year when Boehner laid out a plan that would result in House passage of a comprehensive bill. In March, he told donors he was “hell-bent” on getting it done. People who know the speaker say he was serious and sincere. The reaction from the grassroots level, in the House caucuses as well as around the country, was vehement, even threatening Boehner’s speakership. He had to back down.
And it was evident as recently as last weekend when Tom Cotton, the Republican senator-elect from Arkansas and a rising star in conservative circles, linked the immigration issue with terrorism.
“We know these drug cartels in Mexico are focused primarily on power and profit,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Nov. 30, raising the specter of Hezbollah collusion with drug traffickers. He didn’t offer any evidence of a Hezbollah presence in Mexico.
Since these conservative opponents lack the votes to overcome an Obama veto, McConnell and Boehner will have to head off moves to shut down the government or even start impeachment proceedings. The midterm elections have strengthened the speaker’s position compared with a year ago, but the grassroots passion hasn’t lessened.
That assures immigration will be an issue in the 2016 Republican presidential race. Some potential candidates — such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (the Bush family has long advocated immigration reform) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who has done well with Hispanic voters) — would like to moderate the tone of the immigration debate.
Hispanics, who will represent a larger share of the electorate in the next presidential race than they did in the recent midterms, and Asian Americans are important and growing forces in battleground states such as Colorado, Virginia and Florida. But as demonstrated by Romney — who was beaten 71 percent to 27 percent among Hispanics and did almost as poorly with Asian Americans — a Republican candidate has to pass a threshold of acceptability on immigration to be able to go on to compete on other issues.
The first presidential primary debate is almost certain to feature this question: As president, would you repeal Obama’s executive action and his earlier move that gave temporary legal status to many immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children?
That then will become a litmus test for much of the base and also prevent congressional Republicans from seeking the most effective antidote to Obama’s action: passing a comprehensive and credible bill of their own.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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