Politics & Policy

Always Bitten, Never Shy

Senate Republicans' bid to win the executive amnesty fight with voters.

When thousands of Central American children began arriving on the border between Texas and Mexico last year, President Obama’s team denied that the sudden influx was driven by his decision to grant the practical equivalent of amnesty to illegal immigrants who came to the country during childhood. On Monday, the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services decided to avoid a repeat of that summer spectacle at the border by announcing a legal path for those children to enter the country.

“There are literally hundreds of millions, if not a billion or more people who would like to be in America; we can’t accept them all,” Senator Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) tells National Review Online. “We just continue to create that incentive. We should have an asylum process. We should have a legalized-refugee status [program]. We’re a very compassionate nation, but, again, it’s got to be controlled.”

USCIS revealed the new policy at a convenient time for Johnson and other congressional Republicans, who are trying to publicize the ramifications of President Obama’s executive-amnesty orders in order to turn public opinion against the Democrats. The GOP strategy to thwart Obama by passing a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that denies funding for the orders is palsied by a fear of unfair media treatment, but some lawmakers and activists believe that concentrated fire from Republicans can make it politically painful for Democrats to filibuster the DHS funding bill.

“We’re happy to fund DHS; we want to keep this nation safe and secure,” Johnson says. Democrats need to explain “why do you want to fund, for example, permanent Social Security cards for people who came into this country illegally? Why do you want to fund the process that allows [those] people to claim the earned-income tax credit and additional tax credits?”

Johnson has used his post as Homeland Security Committee chairman to explore that last question, revealing that Obama’s amnesty policies provide illegal immigrants with Social Security numbers that enable them to receive up to $24,000 from the IRS. Concurrently, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on asylum fraud, and on Thursday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hear from Ohio secretary of state John Husted, who believes that “the president’s executive actions have expanded a loophole” that could allow non-citizens to vote.

“The only way you’re going to persuade seven Democrats to do the right thing is if the American people understand fully what’s at stake and what the president’s actions actually mean, so we’re doing everything we can to highlight that,” says Representative Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), who is chairing the hearing along with Representative Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.).

As they hammer home their arguments against Obama’s immigration policies, Republicans are also attacking Democrats for filibustering the DHS bill even though Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) will allow the Democrats to try to amend the legislation.

“This effort to try and hide from the American people is embarrassing,” Senate Steering Committee chairman Mike Lee (R., Utah) said Tuesday. “Republican leaders in the Senate have repeatedly signaled that they will give Democrats every opportunity to amend provisions of the bill that they don’t like. But even this is rejected, because it would require Democrats to go on record as supporting or opposing the president’s executive amnesty. Instead they have chosen to create this hostage situation.”

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Although Republicans think they have a compelling argument, it’s also clear that they don’t expect to get a fair shake in the media, and that anxiety “influences a lot” of GOP tactical thinking, according to one senator, especially when it comes to the question of who will get blamed for a government shutdown.

“When you have the mainstream press that’s not only not on your side but utterly opposed to you, and just is gleeful when you’re backed into a corner and they’re going to exploit it in any way, shape, or form, I mean, you have to take that into your calculation in terms of winning a political argument,” the senator says.

Case in point, from the Republican perspective: CNN’s Dana Bash suggested to Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) that conservative Republicans are putting the DHS funding at risk, even though Democrats are the ones filibustering the bill.

“Yes, they are holding up the bill,” Bash said during a Sunday interview. “They’re not allowing debate, but in the reality that if there were a debate, this bill still wouldn’t pass.” Granted, Bash also induced the most damaging Democratic gaffe of the 2013 shutdown by asking then–Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) why he wouldn’t agree to fund the parts of the government that Republicans regarded as uncontroversial. But Republicans don’t expect the media to offer any sustained scrutiny of Democrats this time around.

That’s the kind of worry that has Republican leadership assuring the press that DHS funding will never lapse, after promising House conservatives that Congress would use the DHS appropriations bill as leverage to force Obama to sign legislation that blocks implementation of his executive orders on immigration.

“The cromnibus was leadership’s plan,” as Cruz reminded Bash. “I said at the time it is a bad plan and it is a plan that is designed to lose.”

That said, a conservative Senate aide argues that Republicans benefit by forcing Senate Democrats to unite around Obama’s immigration orders, regardless of the ultimate legislative outcome.

“Having this debate and continuing to make the American people aware of the lawlessness of this president and the complicity of Democrats is a win for us on this issue,” as one conservative Senate aide puts it. That view of the political stakes is implicitly corroborated by the Senate Democrats’ determination to avoid voting on the substance of Obama’s orders by filibustering the legislation.

And the debate has broader implications for the 114th Congress, implications that might induce the Republican majority to fight more aggressively than they have in past showdowns.

“If the Democrats, as a minority in the Senate, can not only tell the majority what bills they can bring up and whether or not they can or can’t have amendments, but also feel like they have the power to tell the House what bills they have to pass, it’s going to be like this on every single issue,” the aide says. “If our leadership in the House and Senate want to go through this for two years, then capitulate; don’t fight.”

That helps explain why Republicans have more unity on this issue than they enjoyed during the October 2013 attempt to defund Obamacare, with GOP legislators as ideologically different as Cruz and Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine) helping to craft a tactical endgame.

From now until February 27, when DHS funding lapses, the GOP will try to stay united in articulating a message that emphasizes the negative aspects of Obama’s immigration orders. Ultimately, they’ll be guided by Abraham Lincoln’s axiom that “public sentiment is everything.”

“The purpose of the public hearings is to lay out facts, lay out the reality so people understand, in this part of the debate, why President Obama’s executive actions are going to actually decrease both their economic and national security,” Johnson says.

The outcome of the executive-amnesty fight will depend in large part on whether the American public is convinced by that message over the next few weeks.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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