WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama just simultaneously created temporary legal status for about 5 million undocumented immigrants and poured accelerant on his already combustible relationship with Republicans. The parties' divide over immigration heightens the threat of a government shutdown and probably kills even legislative efforts that have -- or used to have -- bipartisan agreement.
“Don’t let a disagreement over a single issue be a deal breaker over every issue,” Obama said in his Thursday evening speech from the White House. “Congress shouldn’t shut down our government again because we disagree on this.”
But Republicans say the problem is not immigrants, it’s Obama acting without the approval of Congress. “Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own," said a statement earlier Thursday from House Speaker John Boehner, blaming Obama for the lack of bipartisanship and cooperation in Washington. "The president has said before that ‘he’s not king’ and he’s ‘not an emperor,’ but he’s sure acting like one. And he’s doing it at a time when the American people want nothing more than for us to work together.”
Little of the political debate now will focus on the policy. In fact, many Republican lawmakers support the policy (though you wouldn't know that, to listen to them). Nearly identical changes passed the Senate with a bipartisan 68 votes.
But even those who sponsored the legislation oppose the president's use of executive action to implement the changes. And their anger is tepid compared with those Republicans who had opposed the Senate immigration bill. GOP Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, one of the most strident anti-immigration lawmakers, has said Congress should do anything it takes to fight the president, including impeachment.
“The president is determined to violate his [oath of office],” King said. “There are 535 members, House and Senate, who have all taken an oath of office to uphold the Constitution. And we need to do our duty. And when you do that, you can’t be making some kind of decision about politics, it doesn’t work.”
The president's action was no surprise; he had vowed to move forward on immigration reform. The furious reaction was no surprise, either. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who will be the majority leader in January, said Obama was “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” House Speaker Boehner said Obama was playing with fire.
If the president had waited a month longer to sign the executive orders, he could have avoided a December fight that could result in a government shutdown.
The administration didn't bother to tell Republicans exactly what would be in the executive orders. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spent most of Thursday briefing Democrats in the House and Senate. No briefing was offered to Republicans.
While conservatives talk about impeachment or shutting down the government, GOP leadership will push for lawsuits trying to strike down the executive orders.
The first test of GOP opposition could come next month. There is a Dec. 11 deadline to pass legislation that will keep the government open. Even as the parties exchange fire in public, Democratic and Republican leadership continue to work quietly behind the scenes to craft an “omnibus” spending bill that would fund the government through September 2015. It would take funding fights off the table, allowing the GOP to focus on other issues.
But congressional leadership has seen more than once that their rank and file can derail them, and many moderates still live in fear of being ousted by a tea party revolt.
Conservatives argue that allowing Obama to enact any laws would only enhance his legacy, something they are determined to prevent. So an empowered right-wing endangers efforts that actually have bipartisan support -- like tax reform and national security issues like fighting the Islamic State group.
"I know the politics of this issue are tough," the president said in his speech. He's about to find out just how tough.