WASHINGTON — Republicans may not be able to stop President Barack Obama from making big changes in immigration policy on his own, at least not now.
First, a top Republican in the House of Representatives alerted colleagues Thursday that they have no power to cut off funding to Obama to carry out his executive order protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Second, the party is deeply divided over whether it could use other parts of the federal budget – threatening to shut down the government in the next several weeks – to try to force Obama to retreat.
That would leave it largely until next year, when the party takes control of the Senate in addition to the House, to try to change Obama’s course.
“Make no mistake,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., soon to be the Senate majority leader. “When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act.”
For now, Republicans are finding that Congress’ constitutional power of the purse will not give them the leverage they’d like.
Several rank-and-file Republicans in the House had called for taking the money needed to enforce Obama’s actions out of a 12-bill spending package needed by Dec. 12 to keep the entire government open.
More than 60 Republicans signed a letter last week urging House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., to include language in the must-pass spending package that would “prohibit the use of funds by the administration for the implementation of current or future executive actions that would create additional work permits and green cards outside of the scope prescribed by Congress.”
However, Rogers said Thursday that it would be nearly impossible for Congress to stop the executive order through the appropriations process because the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the key agency in implementing the order, is self-funded through the fees it collects mostly through immigration applications.
“Congress does not appropriate funds for any of its operations, including issuance of immigration status or work permits, with the exception of the ‘E-Verify program,’” Rogers said in his statement.
“Therefore, the appropriations process cannot be used to ‘de-fund’ the agency. The agency has the ability to continue to collect and use fees to continue current operations, and to expand operations as under a new executive order, without needing legislative approval by the Appropriations Committee or the Congress, even under a continuing resolution or a government shutdown,” he wrote.
Several Republicans criticized Rogers’ statement and urged attacking Obama’s executive order through the funding process.
“You could look at other agencies, you could look at the Department of Justice,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. “I think Chairman Rogers, unfortunately, is looking at it too narrowly. To take anything off the table … I think is pretty defeatist.”
Other Republicans suggested a strategy aimed at keeping parts of the government funded and open, though that ultimately could force a showdown and partial shutdown as it did last year.
“It would be possible for the House to go forward on some of the appropriations bills that don’t impact some of our border security and enforcement and send that over to the Senate and see what they will do to try to keep this government operating,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
Asked if his party would pay a political price if there were a partial shutdown, King replied “You mean like a larger majority in the House or maybe a Republican majority in the Senate? … I think voters reward us for keeping our oath of office,” he said.
Republican leaders want the spending package to go through and go through unimpeded, though. They want to start January with control of both chambers of Congress and a clean legislative slate. McConnell has vowed not to shut down the government, and Obama appeared to be banking on that. “He takes Sen. McConnell at his word,” said a senior Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
“Shutting down the government is not the right response, CRs (short-term spending bills called continuing resolutions) are not the right response,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“Make the government work but find ways either through rescission or other legislative actions, or even judicial tools, to confront the president at the point and the issue where you disagree,” he said. “And to me, government shutdowns or CRs aren’t the appropriate way to do that.”
Republican lawmakers Thursday looked for other options.
Labrador suggested that McConnell tell Obama that none of his judicial, ambassadorial or administration nominees will be confirmed by next year’s Republican-controlled Senate because of his immigration action. That would include the pending nomination of Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder as attorney general.
“I’m not sure we have a strategy yet, but we need to look at what options are on the table,” Labrador said. “There are things that we can try. We also should start passing legislation out of the House of Representatives that shows what our immigration reform would look like.”
Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, recommended that Congress pass legislation overturning Obama’s executive orders.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, took a somewhat softer tone. Speaking at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida, Kasich urged Obama and congressional Republicans to sit down and work things out.
“You can’t move forward in a country where you’re fighting with each other and questioning each other’s motives,” he said.