Advantage Obama?

11.20.14 10:55 AM ET

The Coming GOP Freakout Over Immigration

With an executive order this week that will affect 5 million undocumented immigrants, the president is daring the Republicans to fight back—and alienate Latino voters.

When President Obama announces his executive order giving legal status to as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants, he will do it over the objections of nearly every Republican in Congress. And that’s just fine with Democrats.

“We have waited long enough for House Republicans,” Harry Reid said Wednesday. “Since they won’t act, the president should, and he will.”

Likewise, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, who often has to contort his answers from the podium to cover every base and offend no audience, was notably at ease as he discussed the president’s immigration plans during his press briefing later in the day. “The president often says only the tough issues reach his desk,” Earnest said with half a smile. “This might be the one exception.”

After a humiliating defeat on Election Day, when Latino voters stayed home in droves and Democrats lost every race they expected and many they didn’t, the president’s party now sees an early opportunity to turn the tide back against Republicans. By moving unilaterally, the thinking goes in Washington, Democrats will get credit from Latinos for securing legal status for millions, all while goading the GOP into a potentially fatal reaction on the issue that has danced on racial, class, and political divides for decades.

“I’d say ‘advantage Obama’ on the politics of this,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform group. “He’s going to recover lost ground in the Latino community for himself and for Democrats. This is a big, bold move that’s going to protect millions of people.”

While Democrats get the credit, Sharry predicted, the danger for Republicans comes if the opposition of the party’s most strident members, like Sens. Ted Cruz and Jeff Sessions, define the GOP as a whole. The danger of a potential Republican overreach or overreaction was clearly on the minds of people in both parties Wednesday.

“If the fight over the next six weeks, six months, two years is, ‘Republicans want to kill this thing in the crib, Democrats fight to defend it,’ think of the bright line that draws,” Sharry said. “One party is fighting for immigrants; the other party is fighting against them. That distinction, which was a big factor in 2012, will be turbo-charged in 2016.”

But as certain as Democrats are that the politics of another immigration fight will help them, conservatives are equally convinced of the rightness of their argument.

“It is a huge issue, and I don’t think you could overstate how important it is,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action.

“What we said in 2013 was that if you were a politician and the American people saw you fighting with every tool you have to stop Obamacare, you’d be rewarded,” he said. “I think that played out. Similarly, if a politician used every tool available to stop executive amnesty and handing out 5 million work permits, those politicians are going to be rewarded. I think it’s a no-brainer.”

As news broke that the president would make his announcement from the White House before the end of the week, Democrats quietly hoped that the GOP would quickly find the self-destruct button. Even before the details of the president’s plans were made public, Republicans lambasted the president as “Emperor Obama” (House Speaker John Boehner), “abusing his power” (Sen. John Cornyn), using “diktats” and “the tactics of a monarch” (Cruz), and risking “anarchy” and riots in the streets (Sen. Tom Coburn).

While the language may have been heated, Republican leaders were quietly sorting through “a very narrow path of acceptable options,” as one GOP staffer described it. Included on the list were suing the president in federal court, passing legislation to reverse the executive order, which the president would veto, and the riskiest—passing appropriations bills to fund the entire government but stripping out money for the president to enact the executive order, a path that could lead swiftly to threats of a government shutdown.

The first test will come almost immediately, in the first week of December, as Congress debates a bill to fund the government past December 11, when the current spending bill lapses.

Conservatives have made clear they want Republican leaders to use the December deadline to confront the president on immigration.

“We expect [the new GOP majority] to use the power of the purse to defund amnesty, especially those—and there were many—who ran against it,” said Kevin Broughton, national spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots. “This is a constitutional republic, not a banana republic. Let’s see if the GOP can act like it.”

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Holler said he also thought the defund strategy is the one conservatives will push for, even though incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to keep the government operating at all costs and several senior Republican senators have indicated that a government shutdown strategy should be off the table.

“The incoming Republican majority in the Senate was built on opposition to executive amnesty,” said Holler. “It’s what a lot of these folks ran on—and ran successfully on. There’s going to be a tremendous amount of pressure to use the appropriations process to try to block the executive action, regardless of what one or two senators might say.”

While the announcement will force Republicans to deal with a split in their caucus on the issue, Democrats have their own longstanding internal battles over immigration that the president’s announcement won’t solve. The executive action Obama is expected to take likely will not include relief for farm workers, high-tech workers, or those with extenuating humanitarian circumstances, three categories Democrats had pushed hard for.

Even the guest list for a White House dinner with Hill leaders to unveil the details of his plans raised eyebrows in Obama’s own party. On the list: Democratic leaders, the incoming head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the leading Hispanic, Asian, and black members of the Democratic caucus. Not on the list: many of the senior Democrats who worked for years to write the House’s immigration-reform legislation and learned of plans for the executive order from media reports.

“What a bunch of motherf**kers,” said a top Democratic aide of the White House’s outreach to Democrats. “They can’t even do the easy things right.”

One Democrat who should have no complaints is Harry Reid. On Friday the president will go to Del Sol High School in Reid’s hometown of Las Vegas, where Obama spoke first during the 2008 presidential campaign and returned in 2012 to promise Latinos in the audience that “the time is now” on immigration reform.

It turns out that the time wasn’t then. But two years and two elections later, it looks like the time has come for the president to deliver on his long-delayed promise to the Latino and immigrant communities, which make up 27.5 percent of the population in Nevada. Standing next to Obama will be Reid, who is up for reelection in 2016 and could face Brian Sandoval, Nevada’s popular GOP governor, who just pulled in 47 percent of the Latino vote in his reelection bid this month.

Frank Sharry says Friday’s event could make all the difference for Reid in 2016. “If Harry Reid on Friday stands next to the president and says, ‘The biggest victory in 25 years is thanks so me,’ that’s a pretty big calling card,” Sharry said.