WASHINGTON – Here's what Republican elders are telling their colleagues: Please, don't be stupid. As they wait for President Obama to announce Thursday evening that he will shield millions of undocumented people from deportation, the GOP's Congressional leadership is counseling colleagues, including the most conservative ones, how -- and how not -- to respond.
Several members described a concerted effort to quiet those most likely to make inflammatory remarks that could hurt the party.
“Count to 100 before you say anything,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he told conservatives in the House.
Many Republicans admit to worrying about what fellow party members might say. In the past, comments like those of former Missouri Republican Congressman Todd Akin about "legitimate rape," for example, have put the GOP on the defensive. So the establishment has carefully worked out the talking points for Thursday.
Look to the statement from House Speaker John Boehner’s office Wednesday for the best blueprint.
“If ‘Emperor Obama’ ignores the American people and announces an amnesty plan that he himself has said over and over again exceeds his Constitutional authority, he will cement his legacy of lawlessness and ruin the chances for Congressional action on this issue -- and many others,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
But try as it might, leadership can’t make members stick to the script. Getting off message poses a real danger because Democrats will be looking for any opportunity to paint the GOP as insensitive to the plight of immigrant families, offensively ignorant or just plain racist.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., got the discussion off to an uncomfortable start by saying that Obama's reforms would bring an influx of "illiterate” immigrants, a remark that Graham quickly condemned.
“How we behave is about us,” Graham said. “There will be a few who want their 15 minutes of fame by saying impeach him or shut down the government. Most of us appreciate the chance to govern again and will understand a measured response is required.”
“Impeaching the president, shutting down the government are bad responses, inappropriate responses to an immature decision by this president,” Graham said. “Don’t respond as a third-grader because someone else did.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is also trying to mute his fellow party members.
“Because of my role in this issue, I’ve had numerous conversations with numerous members on our side,” he said. “We’ve had numerous discussions.”
He thinks the message that Republican lawmakers must respond in a measured way is sinking in. But he realizes that “it only takes a couple” to cause problems.
“There will be inflammatory remarks,” McCain said. “There will be inflammatory remarks on both sides and I rely on the good sense of the American people to view this with the maturity and judgment it deserves."
Based on his almost 28 years of experience in the Senate, McCain said, he would strongly discourage any calls for impeachment.
“[Such talk would] ignore the lessons of the past,” he said. “That’s the problem with having some of these new young punks around here. They don’t listen to old geezers.”
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who often represents the thinking of House Republican leadership, was blunt: “Don’t be stupid about how you respond.”
There have been meetings with members to lay out the proper courses of action, Cole said. Trying to use short-term government funding bills like continuing resolutions, or "CRs," to fight with the president and risk a government shutdown isn't the way to go, he argued.
“You have every right to be upset. [Obama's move] is an inappropriate action,” Cole said he told lawmakers. “But shutting down the government is not the right response. CRs aren’t the right response."
“Everybody is allowed to speak and think for themselves,” Cole said. “I think at the end of the day, the best response would be finishing up our business and finding ways -- particularly when we have a Republican Senate in town -- that can make life a little more difficult for the president.”
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx argued that the GOP shouldn't pay for the comments of any one member.
“The people who make the statements will have to live with the consequences of their statements,” Foxx said. “You can’t paint the party with a broad brush based on the statement of one person. People have to stand on their own two feet and the public understands that.”
It may be true that one stray voice won't cause much harm. GOP leaders just don't want to hear a loud chorus singing the wrong song.