A party in shambles: Republicans grasp for solution to their own immigration mess

After picking a losing fight over immigration, Republicans weigh their options going forward -- and all are bad

By Simon Maloy

Published January 22, 2015 3:47PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                     (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

When Republicans took full control of Congress earlier this month, they came in with the determination to prove to everyone that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they were capable of satisfactorily performing the basic functions of government. The party that shut down the government and provoked crisis after crisis over the debt ceiling was going to put on a show of competence. “Put your faith in us,” they said, “and we will dazzle you with our adequacy.”

And, of course, the very first thing they did with their newfound power was to entangle themselves in a funding fight over immigration with zero chance of success and a high probability of political backlash. This isn’t the fight Republican leaders wanted to have and they know they can’t win, but they’d ceded so much ground to the anti-immigration hardliners that they had no choice. So the House passed a bill that makes Department of Homeland Security funding contingent upon the abrupt reversal of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

The bill is awaiting action in the Senate, where Democrats are threatening a filibuster and even a few Republicans are worried that the legislation is more trouble than it’s worth. According to the Washington Examiner, that wariness by Senate Republicans has House conservatives worried that their legislation might not even get a chance to be vetoed by Obama, so they are demanding that Senate Republicans do… something to make sure it passes.

Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, said GOP leaders should not abandon the bill simply because they are six votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority.

“It’s high time that Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and others decide to start fighting and using the procedural rules in the senate,” Labrador said. “They also have a responsibility in the Senate to make sure those bills pass.”

Find a way! Do a thing! Make it pass! Even if Ted Cruz and Mike Lee were to somehow figure out some procedural trick for sneaking the bill past a Democratic filibuster, Obama won’t sign it. So right now the GOP is locked in a heated intramural argument over how long they need to maintain the fiction that this is anything but a futile act of political protest.

In the meantime, Republican leaders are trying to figure out how to back out of this mess in a way that doesn’t anger conservatives and also doesn’t result in the party being blamed for shutting off funding to the Department of Homeland Security. According to Politico, they are considering a number of options, none of which will work.

Among the possible Plan B’s: Republicans could pass a new bill to beef up security at the U.S.-Mexico border. They could sue to overturn Obama’s unilateral protections for millions of undocumented immigrants. Or they could pass yet another short-term DHS funding measure, giving the GOP more time to approve a strategy.

Let’s run through these in turn. The bill to boost border security was introduced by Rep. Mike McCaul last week. It directs additional manpower, military equipment, and Defense Department “aviation assets” to the agencies charged with securing the southern border, and it requires that several more miles of fencing be built. It also mandates that the Department of Homeland Security established total “operational control” over the border with Mexico, defined as “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States,” and it requires that DHS accomplish this feat (regarded by experts as an impossible task) in five short years. The thinking is that a stringent enough border bill will help assuage the hardliners, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen. Conservative Republicans are already attacking the bill as too weak because it doesn’t go after Obama’s immigration orders and doesn’t provide funds for deporting undocumented immigrants caught in the interior.

As for the lawsuit option, conservatives might be more amenable to going down this road – not because it stands any chance of actually succeeding, but because it represents another symbolic act of defiance against President Obama. A theoretical lawsuit over Obama’s immigration orders faces the same obstacle as the Republicans’ actual lawsuit over Obama’s changes to his healthcare law: the courts will almost certainly throw it out for lack of standing. When that happens, the Republicans will be right back where they started, only they’ll have endured yet another embarrassing defeat on immigration.

Lastly, the GOP could just pass another short-term continuing resolution to keep the lights on at DHS while they try and figure out a strategy for dealing with the immigration issue. They’ve already had over a month to try and work something out, but still haven’t come up with a workable strategy for satisfying conservative demands for confrontation with the White House while simultaneously avoiding a partial government shutdown. It doesn’t seem likely that another month or two will change that dynamic, and trying to extend the deadline for a showdown might just anger conservatives even more.

In the end it doesn’t matter what “alternatives” or “Plan B” scenarios the Republicans contemplate. They’ve put themselves in a position in which they have no good options, but aren’t yet willing to acknowledge that this is a fight they won’t win.

Simon Maloy

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