Republicans could struggle to roll back immigration changes

Meredith Shiner
Political correspondent
Republican Senator from Texas Ted Cruz exits the floor of the Senate after speaking for more than 21 hours in opposition to the Affordable Care Act in Washington, D.C. on September 25, 2013.  (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Republicans have unlimited negative opinions on President Obama’s plan to halt the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants who have U.S. citizen children — but they will have few actual options, procedurally or politically, to roll back the changes.

The GOP warnings against Obama’s executive action have bordered on apocalyptic, with one retiring Republican senator saying it would create “anarchy” and “violence” in the streets and Republican leaders vowing to fight the decision “tooth and nail.”

GOP leaders have yet to announce how they might do so.

Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, on Thursday said it would be “impossible” for Congress to defund the executive action in the pending government-spending legislation, because the agency that oversees the issuance of immigration status is self-funded through fees it levies on immigration applications.

And the next Congress, in which the GOP controls both chambers, is even less likely to pursue comprehensive immigration reform than the current one, in which a Democratic-controlled Senate approved a bipartisan bill and a Republican-controlled House failed to call a single vote on the issue.

“It won’t have the votes to pass, here or in the House,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a cosponsor of that bipartisan bill and potential 2016 presidential contender. “You saw virtually every Republican in the country ran on the platform of opposing that bill, that’s the reality.”

A comprehensive approach going forward will also not be possible, he warned. “I know you can’t. We tried it,” Rubio said. “There will be less votes for that in January than there were a year ago.”

Any efforts to reverse Obama’s policies and increase deportations are likely to create a political minefield for Republicans heading into the 2016 presidential cycle. The eventual nominee, after all, is going to need Hispanic voters in the general election. But actively opposing the president’s policies without advocating their own solutions could also prove politically problematic for Republicans.

“Certainly Republicans are going to have to answer whether they would repeal the policy or not — and I don't know that they'll be able to get away from that question,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration-reform group. “What are they going to say? What do they have to offer? Mass deportation is not an option. Self-deportation is not realistic. Integration is the only reasonable solution. ... That's one of the reasons they are so organized against Obama … because it exposes they don't have an answer.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has spoken out loudly against what he calls “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, has outlined a response plan that disrupts unrelated government actions going forward but does little to address immigration reform questions. He says Republicans should not confirm a single judicial or executive nominee during the next two years of Obama’s presidency as punishment for his executive action to halt deportations.

As Yahoo News reported earlier Thursday, many legal experts believe that the Obama administration is acting within its rights to stall the deportation of certain groups of undocumented immigrants.

Supporters point to previous actions by Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and, later, George H.W. Bush, who enacted an order to halt deportation of undocumented immigrants affected by a loophole in the 1986 amnesty law.

Those changes were supported and later ratified by Congress, though it’s worth noting that Democrats controlled Congress at both moments.

Democrats, for their part, could keep the pressure on by using GOP-proposed changes in the day-to-day operation of the Senate to their advantage.

For example, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he would like to run a more open Senate, in which members have more opportunities to vote on amendments to bills. Such a promise could lead Democrats to offer the exact same immigration language that passed in 2013 as an amendment to another piece of legislation. No. 2 Senate Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois, another co-sponsor of the 2013 bipartisan immigration overhaul, has expressed his openness to trying to bring up the bill again that way.

The risk for Democrats, of course, in turning what was once a serious bipartisan legislative effort into a political tool is that they could marginalize their own efforts by doing so. Democrats don’t want immigration reform to appear as nakedly political as some of their other talking-point-driven amendments, such as eliminating tax breaks on corporate jets.

Durbin, however, contested the notion that voting again on the already passed bill would be political.

“Now, wait a minute, this was a bipartisan measure from the start. It was written in a bipartisan fashion, it had bipartisan support,” Durbin told Yahoo News. “I think I’ve got enough experience to deal with day-to-day floor fights. This is a much larger issue and something we looked at very seriously and we passed.”

It's looking like the next Congress, with both chambers run by a Republican party divided on the issue but united against the president, likely will not do the same.