When many Republicans were still celebrating the GOP’s historic electoral victory, conservatives on Capitol Hill began meeting in private to develop a plan to stop President Obama’s planned executive action on immigration. The resounding support of the American people at the polls last week appears to have given some House and Senate Republicans new confidence that they can face down Obama and win. Yet that doesn’t even mean they’ll necessarily get their chance: Republican leadership in both bodies may resist putting up the stakes involved.
Conservative members in both chambers want to pass a continuing resolution to fund the whole government with language that expressly prohibits using federal funds to enable any executive action on immigration policy, blocking funding, for instance, of work-authorization documents for illegal immigrants.
Congressmen will work this week on crafting a strategy to pass such a bill, and one working plan would have House Republicans include such language in a continuing resolution that’s needed to keep the government funded past mid-December.
Such an effort will probably run into the objections of Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Even if Republicans can persuade Reid to agree to those conditions — there are a number of Senate Democrats they think would support the idea — they’ll have to persuade the president to sign that CR, too. If Reid refuses to take up an amnesty-blocking bill before the existing continuing resolution expires — as one assumes he will — the plan is for House Republicans to pass a short-term continuing resolution set to expire just after the new Congress is seated, followed by a long-term CR in the new year that includes the anti-amnesty language.
President Obama has indicated he wants to enact executive action before the end of the year, so unless he gets cold feet about the move (again), it’s likely that the backup plan will not get in the way of his announcement. The idea, instead, is then to block the implementation of the president’s executive action, which is apt to include deferred prosecution and work permits for several million illegal immigrants. Despite the president’s plan to act in the lame-duck session, Republicans may have leverage to stop him.
“This is absolutely a fight that we can win,” one GOP staffer says. “[President Obama] would become unmoored from reality if we passed a bipartisan bill blocking executive amnesty and he just said, ‘Screw it, I’m shutting the government down, I’m passing executive amnesty, I’m king of the world.’”
But getting to a bill, period, let alone a bipartisan one, won’t necessarily be easy. Republican leadership in the House may so fear a government shutdown that such legislation never reaches a vote. House leadership has instead floated the idea of passing a one-year continuing resolution in collaboration with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, so that Congress could focus on other issues in the coming year, an idea that isn’t sitting well with conservatives. “There’s a surging well of angst over the possibility that a one-year CR could be locked in with Reid,” the staffer says.
It may be easier for Republicans to take their stand against the president’s announcement after the new year, for a number of reasons.
A staffer with Idaho congressman Raul Labrador says he doesn’t think House Republicans would risk a government shutdown for any reason, including preventing the president’s executive amnesty. But there’s another option: A Republican House and Senate can block funding for the president’s planned amnesty with specific parts of the appropriations process. “Even if we pass the strongest prohibition possible, the president’s going to blow us off anyway,” the staffer says. “I think having some sort of condemnation in the CR is good, but the most important thing is the appropriations process.” If the president refuses to sign an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security that takes aim at his executive action, then there would be less funding for particular parts of DHS, meaning much lower stakes than a government shutdown. In order for that all to work, though, he points out, Republican leadership still needs to come around. A one-year government-funding resolution, as House majority leader Kevin McCarthy has suggested, would defang the appropriations process.
House conservatives are already working on winning support for their own plans. Alabama congressman Mo Brooks tells NRO the plans are still in an “embryonic” stage, but members are talking one-on-one and over the phone about how best to proceed.
In addition to withholding funding for implementation of the executive action, he says, the House could expand its looming lawsuit against the executive branch regarding Obamacare to include any illegal conduct by Obama concerning immigration policy. That could happen as early as before Thanksgiving, he points out, because it doesn’t require any action from the Senate.
While no legal challenge to the executive action could be mounted until after the president announces the action itself, House Republicans could authorize the speaker to file a lawsuit dependent on what the president does, Brooks says.
But some think going to court is a distraction: A staffer from Louisiana Senator David Vitter’s office, which is closely involved with the effort to block Obama’s executive action with a funding bill, says the best option is just to take the executive action off the table, arguing that some Democrats will be up for it. After the midterm elections and the foundering of the 2013 Gang of Eight bill, Senate leadership will support the idea, too, he contends. “You heard so many people preaching about how Republicans have to do this immigration reform to be successful, get elected, win the midterms, blah, blah, blah,” the Vitter staffer says. “[But] every single member ran against amnesty, every single new member ran against amnesty.”
Conservative sources say they think an amnesty-blocking CR could get support from Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, plus independent senator Angus King of Maine. And if the bill is brought up before the new Congress is seated, sources say that Democratic senators Mark Begich and Mary Landrieu might add their support, too.
If conservatives’ effort manages to win over the leadership of the House and the Senate — with some Democratic support — next year, Obama would then have to choose to veto the bill and shut the government down or sign the bill and gut the implementation of his executive action. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has explicitly ruled out that option for the foreseeable future, but some members of both bodies seem to want it back on the table. What leadership thinks of the idea of using the appropriations process next year to block the president’s amnesty, an idea also suggested by Senator Ted Cruz, isn’t clear.
In addition to building a consensus in the halls of Congress, conservatives are looking to rally the American people in their effort to block President Obama’s plans. County sheriffs who oppose the idea, for instance, are working with congressional Republicans to organize a massive gathering of law enforcement in Washington on December 10, two days before the existing government-funding bill expires.
But Republicans know that public outcry and the thorough drubbing Democrats got in the midterm elections might not be enough to stop the president’s amnesty plans. For that, there’s the power of the purse — getting to use it, though, is going to be tricky.
— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.