When it comes to President Obama’s plan to take executive action to ease deportation, there’s one argument coming from top Republicans that, to my ear, really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Various media outlets have reported on Obama’s post-election meeting with congressional leaders and the messages top Republicans sent Obama on immigration. On one point they were unanimous: If the president takes executive action, he’ll have guaranteed that the new Congress will not pass any immigration bills.
“The Speaker warned that unilateral action by the president on executive amnesty will erase any chances of doing immigration reform,” noted Roll Call. “There was a lot of push-back from our guys. It would make not only passage of immigration reform more difficult but would also spill over to other areas of the agenda,” Sen. John Thune told the Wall Street Journal. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, one of the GOP’s most fervent advocates of immigration reform, told Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel that “there’s pretty much a guarantee we can’t get it done if he does something by executive order.”
Maybe I’m alone in this, but I recall very clearly the many months the Republicans in Congress spent earlier this year arguing that the reason immigration reform was not going to pass was that they just couldn’t trust the president to enforce the law. Did something happen to reestablish a sufficient level of trust in the president that Republicans feel they can move forward with him on immigration? Perhaps, sometime in between their vote to sue Obama and their vote to defund his DREAM Act-lite program, the Republicans found it in their hearts to maybe give him a second chance.
There’s not a whole lot of reason to believe any of this, and it’s not entirely clear what the threat to Obama is. Republicans spent more than a year sitting on their hands and saying they won’t work with the president because he’s a dictatorial socialist whom they can’t trust. It's tough to see how vague hints of potential action on immigration would entice him, or how a promise to maintain the status quo would cow him.
If anything, Obama going forward alone on immigration should be an incentive for Republicans to act. The president has said that he’ll take action before the year is out, assuming that Boehner refuses to allow a vote on the Senate-passed immigration bill, which he will. Obama’s also said that he’ll gladly roll back whatever action he takes if the Republicans come to him with a bill he can sign. They’ll probably have around six months from the time Obama announces his action until the orders can actually be implemented. Republicans say they very much want to pass immigration reform – “It’s just time to deal with it,” Boehner said last week – and they very much oppose Obama’s executive action. Six months is more than enough time for the GOP to pass a bill, send it to Obama, and actually put his word to the test. If he signs it, the executive action goes away and everyone wins. If he vetoes it, they can attack him for standing in the way of common-sense reform or whatever and go back to calling him a communist tyrant.
That, of course, assumes that the Republicans would be able to pass any sort of immigration reform measure. And no one has a ton of faith that the GOP can do that, not even the most optimistic Republican members, who in one breath acknowledge that the conservatives in the House are the major obstacle to reform, and in the next breath blame the White House for their party’s inertia on the matter.
Here’s John McCain, one of the Senate’s leading advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, talking to Salon’s Elias Isquith about the possibility of passing a reform bill even if Obama were to unilaterally disarm and forgo executive action:
Here’s my logic, real quick. My logic is that [Speaker Boehner] has now gained a larger number of members which, I believe — and I’ve been told by people around him — would allow him to override the hardcore people who under no circumstances would agree to any reform. I’m not sure he can do that … I think it’s possible that they would take it up in some form or another…
Mario Diaz-Balart also told Bloomberg that “there’s no guarantee that we can get it done.” The implied – or in McCain’s case, explicit – message in all this is that the big obstacle to reform remains the House Republicans, whose most conservative members are volatile and unpredictable and have an unblemished track record of success at bigfooting Boehner’s agenda on immigration.
Republicans and conservatives recognize the danger here. Blaming Obama works only to a certain point, and eventually they’ll have to kick in with immigration reform legislation if they ever hope to broaden the party’s appeal to emerging demographics. But their internal divisions make that an uncertain prospect at best. So instead they just fall back on what they know and preemptively blame the president for their failure to act.