It was a quiet meeting on the eve of a political explosion.
At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 30 or so members of the 2012 GOP freshman class of the House of Representatives gathered in a conference room in the Capitol Visitor Center for what’s become a monthly conclave. For the junior representatives, this was a chance to get some face time with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Everyone knew that the next evening, President Barack Obama planned to deliver an in-your-face rebuke to Boehner, who’d warned the president not to “play with matches” and act on his own to suspend deportation of millions of immigrants.
All of those gathered had reason to be angry: Here was the president pretending, absurdly, that he hadn’t just had his butt whipped in the midterms, and defying the biggest GOP House majority-to-come in more than 80 years. Almost exactly a year before, some in the room had been among the most vocal Republicans pushing for a government shutdown as a legislative strategy against Obama.
But now came a stern message from Boehner: The GOP shouldn’t take the bait this time. And as discussion moved around the table, there was little desire for another shutdown, even from the conservatives, over the president’s executive action on immigration. No one wanted to let Democrats off the mat and hand them a political win — especially not now, barely two weeks after the GOP’s historic midterm victory. “There was definitely a sense that they didn’t want to do that [the 2013 shutdown] again,” said an aide to one of the participants.
Outwardly, Republican rhetoric toward the president hasn’t softened much, especially since Obama’s speech Thursday night. The consistent meme is that he is behaving like an unconstitutional monarch.
“The president has taken actions that he himself has said are those of a ‘king’ or an ‘emperor’ — not an American president,” Boehner said in a statement the morning after the speech. “With this action, the president has chosen to deliberately sabotage any chance of enacting bipartisan reforms that he claims to seek. And, as I told the president yesterday, he’s damaging the presidency itself.”
What has changed is the underlying balance of power in the party and, perhaps, the terms of debate within the GOP over how to deal with the Democratic Party and its surprisingly aggressive leader. Obama might be behaving like a usurping monarch without a mandate, in the eyes of the newly powerful GOP, but no one is seriously threatening to impeach him — as Republicans have repeatedly done in past years. Nor, despite the angry rhetoric, does there seem to be a serious possibility of government shutdown.
Yes, outliers are still threatening actions that could lead to a stalemate a la 2013: Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, voicing anger against the executive action in a way that typified many Southern and Western Republicans, called the move an “impeachable offense,” and earlier circulated a letter urging House Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) to defund any presidential effort to supply work permits or green cards to illegals — potentially prompting a veto and a shutdown. The more than 50 representatives who signed the Salmon letter included many of the same House members who adopted the strategy in 2013 that led to a shutdown then.
And yet Rogers and the House leadership, as well as a substantial portion of the Republican caucus, have made it clear they’re not ready to take that course again. “People are being very thoughtful about this,” said Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is widely seen as a rising star in tea party circles. “I’ve heard no one mention a shutdown except the press.”
Call it thoughtfulness — or call it confusion. All in all, the mild, somewhat subdued response to Obama’s immigration move is evidence that the uncompromising GOP insurgency that so paralyzed Washington in 2013 has lost some potency.
Even some of the House’s most conservative members have little appetite for a government shutdown, saying that while they’re determined to level sharp criticism against the president, they’re not thinking about going much further than that. According to the head of a national, GOP-aligned Republican group, party leaders strongly suspect that Obama is trying to goad conservatives into throwing a fit: “I think the president is counting on a Republican overreaction, where it really takes over the agenda of the new Congress. … I think this president is counting on an overreach.”
Apart from announcing on Friday a lawsuit against the White House over two elements of Obamacare — waiving the employer mandate and transferring funds to insurance companies — the GOP is going home for the Thanksgiving recess without a real plan or response. In an interview, GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Boehner ally and former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, essentially conceded that his party’s hands were tied legislatively for the moment. He said Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are currently in talks about what to do, and he highlighted a border security bill and visa reform as possible options.
Cole also said he’d like to focus on getting an omnibus spending package approved. “From a strategic political standpoint, I think we’re better off establishing stability,” He said. “I don’t think we want to do something that plays into the president’s hands and hurts us, especially after last year’s experience with shutdowns and showdowns. … When your opponent sets a bear trap for you, you don’t respond by stepping into it.”
Former House Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) also believes the days of severe brinkmanship with the White House have passed, and that his colleagues are eyeing a more measured, strategic approach to squeeze the president. If Obama won’t negotiate, says Roskam, the GOP will cast him as the obstructionist.
“Is it a shutdown strategy? I don’t think so. But I think you’re going to see a longer-term thoughtful strategy on the appropriations side to push back very, very hard against the White House,” he said.
If Obama doesn’t back down on his immigration plan, Roskam said appropriators could attach “limitations amendments” to spending measures without threatening shutdown, forcing the president to decide whether he’ll derail other major programs to preserve his executive order. “The vast areas of connection between the president’s action and the appropriations process [create] many opportunities,” he said. “You shift the burden and then force the discussion by passing some thoughtful, targeted appropriations bills. Is Barack Obama going to be the person who grinds this all to a halt over his immigration policies?”
Also leery of too much confrontation are some incoming GOP freshmen.
Tom MacArthur, the Republican who will represent New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District next year, called Obama’s action “just outrageous” and he declined to rule out measures that would shutter the government, but he emphasized that any solution should be bipartisan and called the president’s maneuver “an opportunity for both parties to work together.” Lee Zeldin, who will represent a Long Island House district in the next term, played down the importance of the executive order, saying it was just a distraction. “Instead of discussing tax reform and improving our nation’s energy policy and improving the business policy, everybody’s talking about his executive order,” he said. Zeldin too declined to endorse a specific response to Obama’s immigration action.
The immigration issue, of course, is also about the reckoning of 2016, which is a lot closer than it was during the shutdown crisis. With the race for the White House rapidly approaching, a growing number of Republicans are concerned about alienating Latinos, whom many in the GOP see as a natural constituency.
In 2014, Latino turnout was seen as low across many crucial races. But that’s likely not to be the case in a presidential election. In 2012, Obama amassed an astonishing 71 percent of the Hispanic vote to 27 percent for Mitt Romney, who had declared during the primaries that he would make it harder for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. to get jobs, leading them to “self-deport.” Party leaders legitimately fear a kind of demographic death for the GOP if it doesn’t find a way to appease the burgeoning Hispanic population, particularly since the 2010 census showed, for the first time, that white births are now a minority in the United States.
Some influential conservatives are outraged by what they see as the latest GOP retreat in Washington. Steve Deace, a radio host based in Iowa, said the midterm elections gave Republicans a mandate “to stop Obama” and that the party’s elected leaders can’t be “a bunch of Republican squishes” when it comes to the looming immigration battle. “John Boehner is the third in line to the most powerful office on planet Earth. That is his job,” he said. “It’s Mitch McConnell’s. They need to do their damn jobs.”
Tea Party Patriots, the conservative group that supported several challenges to Republican incumbents, has demanded that McConnell pledge to block every presidential nomination or appointment (save for the national security ones) in response to his executive action. The group has already blasted out fundraising appeals that hammer McConnell as soft on “amnesty.”
“Once again, the Tea Party must do the work that the political elites in Washington refuse to do,” the group wrote in a letter to supporters. “Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans need to get into the fight. Barack Obama is now ruling by decree! The American people didn’t elect a new Senate majority in huge numbers so they could turn around and surrender to Barack Obama before the first political shot is fired.”
But it’s not just in Washington that the party seems more divided than ever on immigration. Speaking Wednesday in Boca Raton, Florida, at the Republican Governors Association meeting, Ohio Gov. John Kasich sounded to some like an apostate.
“My sense is: I don’t like the idea of citizenship when people jump the line, [but] we may have to do it,” he said. Maybe Kasich, like Nixon going to China, is that rare pol who’s confident that he — with his conservative pedigree dating to the Gingrich revolution — can move to the center on an issue that has much of the rest of the Republican Party in a barely contained uproar. But it’s also likely that Kasich, who is said to have presidential ambitions, is trying to look over the horizon to 2016, and prodding his still-confused party forward on immigration.