Why There Won't Be Any Grand Immigration Confrontation Between Obama and Republicans

Republicans are, as expected, utterly livid about President Obama's announcement last night of executive actions he'll be taking on immigration, even as they completely ignore the substance of the moves (some of which are things they support). If one of Obama's goals was to divide Republicans against themselves, he certainly seems to have succeeded; as Robert Costa reported late last night, Republicans have "been thrust back into the same cycle of intraparty warfare that has largely defined the GOP during the Obama years and that has hurt the party's brand among the broader electorate."

If you were just listening to members of Congress talk today, you'd think this issue will inevitably result in a bloody confrontation between Congress and the White House. This conflict is being portrayed in apocalyptic terms by some—Sen. Tom Coburn said "you could see instances of anarchy" and "You could see violence" as a result of Obama's actions, while another well-known Republican warned of "ethnic cleansing," presumably when Hispanics rage through the streets massacring white people. Yesterday on NPR, Rep. Raul Labrador said, "Mitch McConnell should say first thing tomorrow morning that he will not allow any appointments that this administration has made. So there will be no hearings on the new attorney general, there will be no hearing on judges, there will be no hearing on anything this president wants and that he needs."

But for all the anger being expressed today, I don't think there is going to be a dramatic showdown between the White House and Congress. In fact, I'd go so far as to predict that this whole thing is going to peter out. That seems like a strange prediction, and I could well be wrong. But let me run through the reasons why I suspect this is what's going to happen.

First, as mad as Republicans are right now, they've accepted that they can't actually do much about it until they take full control of Congress. That's two months away. That may not be eons, but between now and then other news stories are going to move in and out of the headlines, and Republicans are going to spend time thinking about some of the other things they'd like to be legislating on, whether that means the Affordable Care Act or taxes or something else. By the time they actually get around to creating some kind of confrontation over immigration, months will have passed and it won't seem so desperately urgent.

Second, immigration is about the last thing Republicans want to spend a whole lot of time talking about. It's one of the few issues that actually divides them, at a time they're trying to be united. Not to mention the fact that the 2016 presidential campaign is starting right about now, which means they'll be thinking more and more about those Hispanic voters they're going to be insulting.

Third, and related, the issue is so divisive within the GOP that it seems unlikely they could rally around one course of action through which they can confront the president on immigration. The things McConnell and Boehner would like to do will almost inevitably be condemned by the right as insufficiently aggressive, which raises the likelihood of an extended period of internal argument and negotiation, a process which could well get put aside as other issues come up.

And finally, the more dramatic and confrontational the action Republicans would take, the riskier it is for them, as McConnell and Boehner understand. McConnell has been particularly emphatic that there will be no government shutdown, but once you eliminate that as a possible course of action, their options are severely limited. Let's take a look at this critical passage from Costa's report:

Another option—funding the government until the end of the fiscal year and then rescinding parts of immigration-related funding—is favored by the leadership and championed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). His office has issued a memo urging members to avoid using government funding as the means of dissent and warning that some immigration agencies would not be affected since they operate on user fees.

There are two important things to understand about this option. The first is that the fiscal year runs until next October. That's a long, long time without a budget crisis, i.e. without an opportunity for Republicans to blackmail the president with the specter of a shutdown. The second is that if they pass a bill rescinding the moves Obama is now taking, he can veto it. They may get the satisfaction of forcing him to do so, and have the opportunity to go back on TV condemning him for his overreach, but the policy would remain in place.

All that suggests that what will happen is that Republicans will fulminate for a while, and then end up dropping the whole thing. It'll be something they still mention as evidence of Obama's tyrannical rule, but if there are any actions they take, they'll be mostly symbolic.

Personally, I'd say that a lawsuit is the best way to resolve this. The president says he has the authority to take these actions, and Republicans say he doesn't. That's a question that can only be resolved definitively by the courts. So they should sue him (again), and if they win, they win. But in the meantime, don't be surprised if this issue slowly fades away.

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