Politics & Policy

Terror in a Pennsylvania Town

(Saul Loeb/Getty)
Terrorism threats change the GOP's immigration calculus.

Hershey, Pa. — A House Republican walked up to the microphone, spoke for one minute, and sat down. The next lawmaker got up, spoke for one minute, and sat down. And then the next one got up, spoke for one minute, and sat down.

“And then I got up and left,” a House Republican immigration hawk, who described the afternoon discussion as “boring,” cracks to National Review Online.

That’s a far cry from the weeks of Sturm und Drang in Congress that followed President Obama’s unprecedented executive orders on immigration. The House passed an aggressive bill targeting the orders and a series of related actions on Wednesday, but Republicans devoted little time to discussing how they’ll continue the fight in the Senate or react to a potential presidential veto. Instead, they pledged to pass the Department of Homeland Security funding bill that was supposed to provide them the leverage needed to block the orders. The recent spate of terror threats has changed the political landscape, leaving Republican opponents of the immigration orders in a box canyon.

“There is no exit strategy,” one House Republican in the meetings tells NRO.

“I just got the sense that the senators are all about how little is possible,” says another, referring to Senate GOP reminders that they need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. The narrower the bill — some Democrats dislike Obama’s most recent “adult amnesty,” but favor the program for younger immigrants – the more likely it is to pass the Senate.

Rather than discuss the next step in the executive-amnesty fight, Republicans discussed their own immigration policies. House Homeland Security Committee chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) outlined a “strong” border-security bill that will take clearer shape through a bottom-up drafting process, heartening conservatives frustrated with his efforts during the border crisis. House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) talked about proceeding with legislation to tighten interior enforcement, and Republicans discussed reforming guest-worker programs and expanding high-tech-visa reforms. Taken together, the proposals could develop into a package of immigration bills that shape a broader GOP agenda, undermining the center-left coalition pushing for the comprehensive immigration bill favored by President Obama.

Lawmakers who attended the meeting say Republicans devoted little time to wargaming the fight over the president’s decision to grant work permits and other benefits of legal immigration to millions of people in the country illegally. Congressional Republicans almost unanimously regard these moves as an unconstitutional arrogation of power, so they left the Department of Homeland Security on a short-term continuing resolution that expires on February 27. Then, they passed a bill that funds DHS for the rest of the year, but stipulates that none of the funds can be used to implement Obama’s immigration actions.

Obama has promised to veto such a bill, though, and the terrorist plot against the Capitol seems to have diminished the GOP’s willingness to allow the funding to lapse.

“That’s why you’re hearing an unequivocal commitment to funding the Department of Homeland Security,” Senate majority whip John Cornyn (R., Texas), tells NRO.  “We’re not going to put that at risk under any circumstances.”

House Republican Conference chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, whose conference has already passed the DHS bill targeting Obama’s orders, said that keeping DHS open is their top priority.

“We will be working very closely with the president,” she told reporters.#page#

The GOP leaders aren’t unanimous about the need to pass a clean DHS-appropriations bill before the funding lapses. That’s because about 90 percent of DHS is deemed essential and therefore stays open even during a shutdown.

“The essential people that protect our borders and do the intelligence and all that, they’d all still show up to work and they’d all still get paid,” a House Republican tells NRO. “There actually is one member on leadership . . . who actually advocates the position that it wouldn’t be all that bad if it got shut down, because they’d all still show up to work and they’d all still get paid and all their work would still get done.”

Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson makes the same point. “DHS will not shut down no matter what happens, no matter what the result, DHS will still — the national-security function of it will continue,” he emphasizes.

Some House Republicans argue that the terrorist threat cuts both ways politically. “The president just allowing millions of people to stay without really doing a thorough background check is not very good public policy,” House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) points out, saying that it’s “hogwash” to think that the latest terror threat requires the GOP to cave.

“A Democrat filibuster would put this country at risk,” Representative Ken Buck (R., Colo.) says. “The ball is in President Obama and Harry Reid’s court now. They should not put cynical political grandstanding ahead of national security.”

At the moment, though, even some immigration hawks seem to have given up on using the power of the purse to stop Obama.

“Our best hope of trying to restrain this president is if the judiciary gets involved,” Johnson said. “It’s very difficult just with Congress alone, particularly using the power of the purse which has been dramatically diminished over time.” Two-thirds of government spending is mandatory and continues through a shutdown, he explains. Most of the remaining discretionary spending goes toward other essentials, such as national defense.

“So, what power of the purse do you really have?” the Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman asks. “All we can really do is force a vote. We can’t force winning that vote.”

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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