Immigration fight will test GOP unity

The Hill — A push by House Republicans to reverse President Obama’s executive action on immigration has put their vulnerable Senate counterparts in a tough electoral spot.

The GOP faces a much tougher 2016 map, and Hispanic groups are warning of political fallout over the issue of deportations at a time when the party is trying to win the White House and defend its new Senate majority.

Worried about their party’s political fate, centrist Senate Republicans are balking at the prospect of a messy fight with the president.

“I would be concerned if the funding restrictions affected the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to carry out its vital functions,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “Another way to challenge the president might be in court.”

She cited the successful challenge against President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.

Two other centrists, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), expressed reservations with the House effort last week.

“In general I want to make sure we run the government and a key part of government is homeland security, especially what happened in France,” Kirk said. “In the end, cooler heads should prevail and we shouldn’t defund critical security infrastructure.”

Kirk faces a tough reelection next year, as do Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

But conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are warning leaders not to shy away from a showdown.

Cruz has pressed GOP colleagues to keep their promises during the 2014 midterm campaign and not fund what he calls a “lawless and illegal amnesty.”

“[Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] is caught between Collins and Cruz,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide who predicts this would be the first of many instances of House conservatives forcing Senate Republicans into an awkward position.

House Republicans are expected to add language to a $40 billion bill funding the Department of Homeland Security that would reverse Obama’s 2012 executive order stopping deportations of immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children and stayed out of trouble with the law.

They also plan to add an amendment halting Obama’s November 2014 order, which expanded protection from deportation to as many as 5 million people.

The Democratic aide said repealing the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would be an uncomfortable vote for several Republicans.

“Dreamers are the dividing line in the GOP,” the aide said, referring to the immigrants who were addressed in the 2012 order.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced an early version of the Dream Act in 2001, which would have provided residency under criteria similar to DACA . It attracted the support of several Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Senior Democratic aides say the House bill will not come close to passing the 60-vote threshold required to move major legislation in the Senate. The aide said Sen. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), another centrist, is the only Democrat who might cross party lines and vote for it.

Pro-immigrant advocacy groups warn that voting for the House bill would damage the Republican Party’s effort to mend its image with Hispanic voters.

“At the beginning of the year, Sen. McConnell said the top priority for the GOP was not to look scary. Maybe in the House they missed the memo,” said Clarissa Martínez-De-Castro, deputy vice president of research, advocacy and legislation at the National Council of La Raza.

With the House bill headed for certain defeat in the Senate, some GOP strategists predict it may not even get a vote in the upper chamber because it would needlessly imperil incumbents facing reelection.

“I don’t think they’ll vote on the House version. They’ll probably make some minor changes to it,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.

O’Connell predicted that Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rubio, two potential 2016 presidential contenders, would approach the debate cautiously for fear of offending either conservative primary voters or Hispanics in the general election.

Cruz, by contrast, has embraced the issue as a way to fire up the conservative base and distinguish himself from GOP leaders, who are leery of a standoff with Obama that could lead to shutting down the Department of Homeland Security.

A senior GOP aide said Senate Republicans would do everything they can to pass the House legislation. But if that effort fails, they will explore proposals that can win over a handful of Democrats.

Johnson, the new chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, is leading the effort.

The Wisconsin Republican, who may be the chamber’s most endangered GOP incumbent, said Monday that his party will make a full-throated argument for the House approach but will not let the dispute cause a shutdown of the critical department.

“The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to deal with a president that is operating outside the bounds of his constitutional privileges, and until the courts get involved, it’s going to be difficult to stop him,” he said.

Johnson said one option would be “to attempt to use the appropriations process” to move policy riders that would “prevent President Obama and his agencies from engaging in certain actions that are actually funded through the normal appropriations process.

“We’re still exploring what those things will be,” he said.

Defunding Obama’s executive orders is a tricky task because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has authority over them, is almost entirely self-funded by immigration application fees.

A GOP aide said Senate Republicans could bring forward their own bill funding the Department of Homeland Security and offer the House version as an amendment, which gives some Republicans freedom to vote “no.”

Outside groups will wage an intense lobbying campaign to pressure Republicans and Democrats to back the House’s funding bill.

Roy Beck, the president and CEO of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for limiting immigration, predicted the House bill or a version of it would reach the Senate floor for a vote.

“We’re going to put a lot of lobbying pressure on Republicans,” Beck said. “In the end, Republicans will stand up and say Congress is an equal partner in government.”