GOP gets a grip: How the righteous fury over Obama's immigration action cooled down

Republicans once seemed ready to take extraordinary measures to stop Obama's action. Is the appetite gone?

Published December 19, 2014 6:00PM (EST)

House Speaker John Boehner sent a letter to President Obama today inviting him to deliver his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on January 20. Ho hum, right? This is something that the Speaker of the House has done every year for about a century.

But it was only a few weeks ago that various congressional conservatives, and no less than the editor of establishment conservative bastion National Review, were suggesting that Boehner forgo inviting the president next year in response to his executive action on immigration. Boehner was asked about it, this perfectly petty suggestion of retaliation, in a press conference. He swatted it away, and soon thereafter, the fever for such a move broke. Boehner will face little-to-no conservative pushback for agreeing to welcome the evil tyrant usurper-king into the Peoples' House.

This atmosphere of "only a few weeks ago" already feels like a distant age of hot tempers. Conservatives were floating all sorts of dramatic suggestions for responding to the president's executive action: barring him from delivering a State of the Union address, shutting down the government over DHS funding, blocking all of his nominations in the next Congress. And yes, some talked up impeachment, including fringe loons like Charles Krauthammer, the most prominent conservative columnist in the country. Senator Tom Coburn, always cited as one of President Obama's dearest Republican friends because they worked on a couple things in the Senate nearly a decade ago, warned that Obama's actions would incite violence in the streets.

Maybe this blinding rage on the right, the sort of spitting fury that seemed comparable in bellicosity to the anger following passage of the Affordable Care Act, is just on hiatus for the holidays. The Republican party definitely isn't fine with Obama's executive action, and they'll resume their battle in some form when DHS funding is set to dry out in a few months. But that boiling temper that teed up some sort of extraordinary, disruptive response from the Republican party has subsided. The biggest threat to the "cromnibus," that did "fund Obama's executive action" if only in the short-term, came not from enraged conservatives but liberals furious over its Wall Street giveaways. When Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee sought to interrupt passage of the spending bill in the Senate over its DHS funding, they were resoundingly rebuked by their fellow Republican senators.

Polling on the executive action may offer a hint as to why. Support for the president's moves isn't great, but it's not so bad as to suggest the GOP would be wise in going out of its way to gum up the works of government in protest. Some polls have shown support, others show disapproval. As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake explains, it all depends on the phrasing of the question. The thinner the language, the more closely it tracks President Obama's approval rating: underwater. A few additional words actually explaining what the executive action did, though, push support into the black. The more it emphasizes process (taking action without Congress), the worse it polls. The more it emphasizes policy, the better it polls. This Washington Post-ABC News question seems fairly worded and came in with 52-44 percent support:

Obama has taken an executive action under which as many as four million of the country’s undocumented immigrants will not face deportation over the next three years if they pass a background check and meet other requirements. Most will need to show that they have been in the United States for at least five years and have children who were born here. Do you support or oppose this immigration program?

You phrase it one way, it's 50something-40something against; phrase it another, it's 50something-40something for. It's basically a wash, perhaps leaning a hair closer to "marginally unpopular."

As in, this isn't fertile ground for the GOP to wage some sort of dramatic response. These aren't the sort of numbers that you'd need to backstop a battle risking a full or partial government shutdown. The immigration action isn't seen as such a flagrant abuse of power in the service of disastrous policy that barring the president from Capitol Hill or from having any of his nominees confirmed would be a commensurate response. President Obama announced his executive action and now, only a few weeks later, people look outside and see that life is carrying on as usual. The threat to our democracy may have been oversold.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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