WASHINGTON – Outraged Republicans are struggling for a response to President Obama’s sweeping immigration measures that would check the president without veering into talk of impeachment or a government shutdown, which could backfire on the party ahead of the 2016 White House race.
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Their remedy was far from clear. Republicans weighed filing a lawsuit. Or trying to block funding for Obama’s move. Or advancing immigration measures of their own. But the party was divided, and Obama’s veto power seemed to give him the upper hand.
And so, less than three weeks removed from midterm elections where they retook the Senate and amassed a historic majority in the House, Republicans found themselves stymied by a president whose unilateral move to curb deportations for millions left previously dispirited Democrats cheering and the Republican Party with no obvious response.
Leaders are casting about for a way to satisfy the most conservative lawmakers, without overreacting and alienating Hispanic and moderate voters who will be critical for the 2016 election.
Republicans will be defending their newfound Congressional majorities then and aiming for the White House.
“We’re working with our members, looking at the options that are available to us, but I will say to you: The House will, in fact, act,” House Speaker John Boehner declared at a news conference Friday, the day after Obama unveiled his landmark policy.
Obama announced he was extending deportation protections and a chance for work permits to as many as five million immigrants currently in the country illegally. He also will make more business visas available and reorder law enforcement priorities to focus more squarely on criminals for deportation.
The president acted after spending months trying to gain a House vote on a bipartisan Senate immigration bill, frustrating immigration advocates and some Democrats who wanted him to instead take action on his own. “Time has been wasted. During that time families have been separated, and during that time businesses have been harmed,” Obama said at a Las Vegas rally where he defended his actions.
Republicans acknowledged they were at a disadvantage, given that any legislative solution they settled on would be subject to a veto by Obama that they could not likely overturn.
And party leaders were determined to steer clear of a repeat just a year after Congress’ right-wing Tea Party contingent forced a politically damaging partial government shutdown over Obama’s health care law. But that was the scenario posed by a push among conservatives to use must-pass spending legislation to stop the president.
The situation posed a major challenge to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will take over as majority leader once the new Congress convenes in January.
A handful of the most conservative House members have said impeachment should be on the table as a last resort. But Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of the fiercest opponents of Obama’s actions, tried to rule that out Friday, telling the conservative Heritage Foundation, “We are not going to impeach or move to impeach.”
The party leaders’ job was complicated by the presence in the Senate of a handful of Republican presidential hopefuls who might want an opportunity to confront Obama.
One of those, Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz, argued that the Senate should refuse to confirm any of Obama’s legislative or judicial nominations except for vital national security positions.
Republicans were divided over whether the spending process was a viable route to block Obama. The current government funding measure expires on December 11 and Congress must pass a new one. If the measure is loaded with language to block Obama, that could provoke a shutdown if he vetoes it.
Party leaders favor passing a full-year funding bill and avoiding such a fight, but conservatives are pushing for a shorter term measure, even if it doesn’t have language on immigration, to maintain leverage over Obama once the new Congress convenes.