GOP's nagging shutdown debacle: How far are they willing to go to stop Obama's executive action?

McConnell and Boehner want to stop Obama's executive action -- but not risk a shutdown. How will they play this?

Published November 14, 2014 6:25PM (EST)

John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                                                                                                                      (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

All indications that are that President Obama is going to announce his executive action on immigration "as soon as next week." The number of undocumented immigrants who may apply for deferred action could be somewhere around five million. Since five million is a greater number than "zero," the Republican party will be hopping mad and eager to retaliate against the imperial president, the greatest tyrant our nation has faced since that effete codpiece George III.

Momentum is building with the Republican ranks for the obvious rejoinder: precluding Obama from taking such action in the next government spending fight. Rep. Matt Salmon is leading the charge, here. He and dozens of his colleagues have signed a letter to House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers requesting language "to prohibit the use of funds by the administration for the implementation of current or future executive actions that would create additional work permits outside of the scope prescribed by Congress."

Funding for the government runs out in mid-December. Rogers and the Republican leadership would prefer to pass an omnibus spending bill that funds the government through next September; other Republicans are urging the passage of only a short-term measure -- a few weeks, a month -- that gives them another chance to stick it to Obummer when they reconvene in the next Congress with control of the Senate.

No matter the long-term or short-term/long-term combination strategy they settle on, there's going to be pressure on Republican leaders to include the executive-action-defunding language in whatever bills they have the opportunity to write.

This poses the risk of a government shutdown. Either the House passes a spending bill with it in this Congress and it faces a death in the Democratic Senate or an Obama veto, or the House and Senate pass spending bills with it in the next Congress and Obama vetoes it. Republican leaders are wary of government shutdowns because they tend not to turn out well for the Republican party "brand." And heading into a presidential election cycle, it could prove doubly negative for the GOP to have a shutdown over an issue of great significance to Hispanic communities.

So we're in one of those classic situations where the Republican leader in the House and the Republican leader in the Senate have to assure their members that they'll "use every tool available" to thwart Obama, but not risk a shutdown. This one's a toughie.

Here is newly reelected (congrats!) House Republican leader John Boehner, not quite ruling out the possibility of a shutdown but also warning his members not to be dumb:

Boehner told members at Thursday meeting that one of his top priorities is to use every tool available to him to stop any effort by the president to go around Congress on immigration, according to several Republicans who attended. But the Speaker also said he doesn't want a shutdown, and he cautioned members that they need to game out a smart way to respond before they move forward with a vote.

Newly reelected (congrats!) Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is an interesting case. He stated declaratively after Election Day that "we're not going to be shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt." When asked Thursday about inserting language defunding executive action into a spending bill -- something McConnell will only have the opportunity to do if the longer-term measure is dealt with next year -- he seemed equally declarative.

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This has got to be dispiriting for the conservatives who are determined to undo Obama's executive action by whatever means necessary: here's the incoming Senate majority leader giving away their leverage before the game's even started.

One thing to wonder about, though, is how much work the "we" is doing in McConnell's declarations. We're not going to be shutting down the government. We will not shut down the government over the executive action.

Republicans don't believe that they have ever caused a government shutdown. The last government shutdown, according to them, was the Harry Reid/Barack Obama Shutdown. "We" didn't do anything. If/when this executive action standoff leads to a shutdown, and reporters inevitably mention how McConnell swore that he'd never do such a thing, he'll have his answer at the ready: "We" didn't shut down the government. Barack Obama shut down the government by refusing to sign our spending bill into law. Mitch McConnell is a fishy guy and this is the exact sort of thing he'd say.

That blame-shifting might not work too well in polls of American opinion. Republicans get blamed for government shutdowns. The government shuts down when Republicans control some element of Congress and there's a Democratic president, not when there's a Democratic Congress and a Republican president.

Then again, what's there to lose? Republicans were blamed for the 2013 shutdown, just as they were for the 1995-1996 shutdowns. But it didn't cause them the sort of damage in the 2014 election that it did in 1996. The party recovered rather quickly from last year's mess. Why not go for it again?

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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