Republicans' real enemy is their base: What's behind their new offer to Obama

Republicans couldn't sell Obama on vague promises of immigration action -- maybe they can convince conservatives!

Published November 26, 2014 11:58AM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                     (Jeff Malet,
Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Jeff Malet,

The Republicans have a pitch for you. It’s a very simple pitch: do what we want now, and maybe – just maybe – we’ll consider the possibility of doing something you want later. No guarantees, no promises, and don’t quote us on that, but rest assured that if you agree to what we want now, then we’ll definitely think about it. Definitely maybe. Perhaps.

That was the offer House Republicans made to Barack Obama in anticipation of his executive action on immigration. Hold off on the unilateral action, they said, and there might be a chance that the Republican-controlled House (the same legislative body that denied George W. Bush immigration reform and killed the most recent bipartisan legislation) would defy all the odds and expectations and pass a bill of some sort. Obama, quite sensibly, refused their entreaties and plowed ahead. The GOP claimed that in doing so, Obama “poisoned the well” and precluded any chance of real reform passing – an absurd and stupid argument that, not surprisingly, is very popular with pundits.

One of the political impacts of Obama’s decision was to drive a huge wedge between the establishment Republicans who want to prove the GOP can govern and the hardcore conservatives who want to burn the government down to stop Obama’s “executive amnesty.” This posed a big problem for Republican leaders who want to show that they’re really mad at Obama, but also want to avert the political suicide of a government shutdown. And so to get themselves out of this jam, Republican leaders are making basically the same pitch to conservatives that they made to Obama: give us the government funding we want now, and we’ll see what happens next year.

Politico reported yesterday that the brilliant minds of the Republican leadership were coalescing around a novel approach to the immigration fight: fully fund most of the government until late 2015, but carve out a short-term continuing resolution for “immigration enforcement related funding.” That continuing resolution would expire at some point early next year, after the GOP takes control of Congress, at which point they can have the immigration funding fight that conservatives are pushing for. They’ve apparently taken to calling this hybrid monstrosity the “Cromnibus” – CR, plus “omnibus.” And they’re doing this because everything, as a rule, is terrible.

“The strategy is designed to keep the government open,” Politico notes, “while satisfying the base, which is livid with President Barack Obama for issuing an executive order that ends deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants.” And the base is indeed livid. The Tea Party, once a movement that espoused low taxes and strong opposition to government-sponsored healthcare, is now basically powered by nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment. The only victory they scored over the GOP establishment in the 2014 midterms was Eric Cantor’s shocking primary upset, which saw his Tea Party-backed challenger successfully (and hilariously) paint Cantor as a pro-“amnesty” RINO. If they’re going to be irrationally angry over something, it might as well be something that produces results.

But if I’m a conservative, I’m as skeptical of the Republican leadership as Obama was. The heavy lifting and political risks that come with a funding fight over immigration are clearly on the minds of top GOP officials. A new Quinnipiac poll found that while the public is divided over Obama’s actions, they’re dead-set against shutting down the government – two-thirds of registered voters oppose a shutdown as a means of combating Obama’s executive action. Even a narrow plurality of Republicans think it’s a bad idea. Delaying a government funding fight by a few weeks, or a few months, won’t change this political dynamic.

More practically, it’s not even clear the “Cromnibus” would have the intended effect of halting Obama’s immigration action. As Roll Call points out, “it’s not possible to use a strictly written appropriations bill to defund the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the key agency responsible for implementing many of the newly announced immigration executive orders.” Any conservative who buys into this scheme from the leadership has to have faith that the fight will actually happen, and that their preferred outcome is attainable under this scenario. And given that the conservative hard-liners in the House have already demonstrated the ability to force Speaker John Boehner’s hand when it comes to immigration policy, it’s not clear why they’d accept this uncertain proposal rather than just try to force the issue.

It’s looking more and more like the GOP’s best play on Obama’s immigration action is to pander to the base by going through the motions of defiance while avoiding an actual showdown with Obama and letting the issue slowly fade. And as Paul Waldman observes at the Washington Post, the more time Republicans spend trying to find ways to keep their own members happy, the less effective they’ll be in actually standing up to the Obama administration. When it comes down to it, if Republican leaders really wanted to have this immigration fight, then it seems odd that they’re trying to create freakish, “Island of Dr. Moreau”-esque funding monstrosities in order to avoid having it.

By Simon Maloy

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