GOP's big bluff opportunity: Why Obama may regret saying “send me a bill”

Obama is still urging Congress to "pass a bill." They may -- just not in any way the sort of bill he wants!

Published November 24, 2014 3:53PM (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)

One of President Obama's most common refrains to congressional Republicans who are upset with his executive action on immigration is simple: pass a bill.

"To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed," he said in Thursday night's address, "I have one answer: pass a bill." He added that he "want[s] to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution. And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary." By "pass a bill" or "send me a bill," he's referring to a specific sort of bill: comprehensive immigration reform. That means either the Gang of Eight bill that passed the Senate in July 2013, or a new, but broadly similar, measure in the next Congress.

OK, so "pass a bill -- either the Gang of Eight bill that passed the Senate in July 2013, or a new, but broadly similar, measure in the next Congress" would have been a bit clunky for a prime-time presidential address. But the dare to pass a bill does leave Republicans some space to retaliate in a more effective way than the foot-stomping and argle-bargling that's presently en vogue: by taking him up on that offer and legislating -- just not in the way he'd like.

Republican leaders in the next Congress can draft a non-comprehensive immigration reform bill: basically a border security bill. It's easy to see such a bill winning enough Democratic votes to make its way through the Senate, as Democrats in difficult states try to show how tough they are. Obama will then have been sent an "immigration bill" that passed with bipartisan support.

This strategy appears to be precisely what certain important Republicans are thinking.

"I think one of the first bills you’ll see out of the box in the new Congress will be my border security bill," McCaul said on Fox News. "Because until we get the security piece done, you really can’t talk intelligently about immigration reform as long as waves of illegals are coming in the country."

Republicans have been debating different responses to President Obama's announcement Thursday that he will act to shield five million immigrants in the country illegally from deportation.

"We want to be constructive," McCaul said. "We want to keep the government open but we want to shut down this president."

He said he would work with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), and the new Republican Senate, to send a series of bills to Obama's desk. A border security measure was the only bill he mentioned specifically.

Would Obama veto it? If he did he'd be vetoing what would probably be a popular measure with some bipartisan support, in order to preserve the case for the comprehensive approach that, either way, will never happen during his presidency.

If he signed it, though, he could take the risk of trying to shift the political debate on immigration into its next phase: calling out the bluff in the Republicans' stated strategy.

Republicans are (mostly) all on message about their preferred approach to immigration: taking it one step at a time, a piecemeal approach, first securing the border and then dealing with other issues, yadda yadda yadda. This is largely an excuse for not having to deal with the difficult politics of "what to do" with the ~11 million undocumented immigrants here.

It may be worth the risk to let Republicans have the border security measures they want, and then leave them with no more excuses for avoiding talks over a path to citizenship. As soon as "secure the border first" is out of their hands, they'll have no other way to defend themselves -- both from Democratic attacks and from pressure within the GOP business community -- on not fulfilling all the other aspects of immigration reform for the foreseeable political future.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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