So here we are again, teetering on the edge of another political precipice.
President Obama’s imminent executive order, which could allow roughly five million unauthorized immigrants to stay in America without fear of deportation, has naturally triggered Republican talk of an “unconstitutional power grab” – coupled with the usual wild talk of shutdowns and impeachment. But Republicans have only themselves to blame for this crisis.
Obama gave the GOP – notably the House GOP – plenty of time to come up with a reform plan that would bring unauthorized immigrants out of the shadows. The Senate passed a reform plan last year (by a vote of 68-32) that potentially extended legal protection to millions, while toughening border security and boosting law enforcement funding. But the House GOP, which is in hock to the party’s right-wing nativists, naturally did nothing.
Obama wasn’t going to wait forever. Absent Congress, there are urgent policy reasons for taking executive action (immigrant parents and spouses of U.S citizens shouldn’t be kicked out; immigrants brought here illegally as children shouldn’t be kicked out) – and, frankly, there are political reasons as well (Latino voters, who are key to ’16 Democratic fortunes in Latino-rich states like Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Nevada, won’t abide any more inaction).
So Republicans have known all along, indeed they had been warned, that Obama would act if they did not. And if and when he does, they’ll be stuck with some unpalatable choices.
They can fume that his executive order is illegal, and maybe sue him for that (by tweaking John Boehner’s dead-in-the-water anti-Obama lawsuit), but plenty of legal experts say that such an order would be solidly grounded in presidential precedent (the doctrine of “prosecutorial discretion” has been well within a president’s purview since at least the ’70s). Both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush issued executive orders that shielded immigrants from deportation. Even conservative analyst David Frum, who complains that Obama is preparing to “overmaster a recalcitrant Congress,” admits that “he may well have the power to do so.”
Republicans (the zealots, anyway) can threaten a government shutdown or even impeachment, but the party’s congressional leaders are hosing down those ideas. They know that those bomb-throwing options are political losers. They want to demonstrate that they can actually govern, that they actually have affirmative thoughts. (To behold the GOP’s paucity of ideas on immigration, check out this exchange with tea-partying House member Tim Huelskamp. Asked repeatedly what he’d do about the 12 million unauthorized immigrants in America, all he can offer are variations of “secure the border.”)
The other GOP option, in the aftermath of an Obama executive order, is to wait until the party controls both chambers in January, then try to withhold the money that he needs to implement the order. But screwing up the federal budget process, for the sole purpose of preventing the president from keeping immigrant families together, is another political loser. That would merely cement the GOP’s reputation as the party of deportation – and cement the Democrats’ image as the party that welcomes immigrants. Hillary Clinton can surf that wave in the Latino-heavy swing states.
“I think it is dangerous for Republicans to try and withhold funding,” Republican strategist John Feehery said the other day. It would be better, he said, if the GOP “takes this as an opportunity” to craft its own immigration plan. (Yeah, right. And if only pigs would fly.)
So despite John Boehner’s vow – “we’re going to fight the president tooth and nail” – it’s not clear how they can win politically. And it’s hard to take them seriously, anyway. Boehner warned earlier this month that if Obama takes executive action, “he will poison the well, and there will be no chance for immigration reform moving in this Congress.” (As if it ever moved before.)
This threat, from the party that poisoned the well when it vowed total intransigence literally on day one; the party that poisoned the well when its leaders refused to denounce the Muslim and birther smears; the party that poisoned the well on immigration reform in 2007, when its nativist wing rebelled against President Bush’s admirable plan for path-to-citizenship reform. (Bush in 2007, stumping in vain for reform: “Will we be a welcoming place, a place of law that renews our spirit by giving people a chance to succeed?”)
Republicans are the ones who poisoned the well. Are they even capable of cleaning it up?
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