Several hours after Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) announced to colleagues in the Capitol that the GOP border bill wouldn’t address President Obama’s threats to unilaterally grant amnesty to as many as six million people, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was befuddled.
“I’m utterly baffled by the unwillingness of Republicans to see the danger that has so explicitly been stated out there by the president,” Sessions told reporters.
“Institutionally, Congress can’t acquiesce to that kind of presidential overreach. Failure to put that in just indicates, to me, a lack of, well, I’ll just say it this way – I think the Congress should be very clear that it will resist and that it opposes the president taking that action,” Sessions said.
In recent weeks, Sessions and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have been working overtime to sound the alarm to the public and their colleagues about Obama’s vows to expand the “Deferred Action for Children Arrivals” (DACA) program, which instituted a policy of not prosecuting illegal aliens who entered the U.S. as minors.
The two proposed language for the border crisis bill to prevent Obama from spending money implementing any expansion of DACA. But Boehner has resisted calls to back the proposal, and has generally shied away from taking on Obama head-on over DACA, even while he has ramped up his rhetoric about executive overreach in other areas.
For example, in a recent memo to GOP colleagues outlining his case for suing “king-like” Obama, Boehner mentioned executive overreach on the issues of “health care and energy, to foreign policy and education” – but not immigration.
Immigration hawks like Sessions are growing increasingly anxious that Boehner isn’t taking a more forceful approach. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), for example, recently told Breitbart News he suspected campaign donations from the pro-amnesty U.S. Chamber of Commerce were the explanation for Boehner’s low profile on the issue, a startling accusation for any member of Congress to make about the sitting speaker of his own party.
Noted legal experts have said Obama’s policy constitutes a major power grab. “If a president can claim sweeping discretion to suspend key federal laws, the entire legislative process becomes little more than a pretense,” Jonathan Turley, a liberal law professor at George Washington University who voted for Obama, said in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in December.
According to reports, Obama is considering expanding DACA to as many as six million illegal aliens, a move breathtaking in scope that would transform fringe talk of impeachment into a mainstream conversation overnight.
Boehner, however, while battling Obama’s aggressive executive actions with increasingly heated rhetoric, has aimed most of his barbs at the president on topics other than immigration.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for the speaker, said Boehner is on guard for any new action by Obama and is planning how to address it.
“The Speaker is extremely concerned about the possibility of further unilateral action from the White House. We are monitoring the situation closely, and considering options for an appropriate response,” he said.
At a recent White House event celebrating the PGA, Boehner told Obama he wouldn’t be bringing immigration reform to the floor this summer. According to a report from Major Garrett in National Journal, Obama told a group of liberal activists that Boehner had urged him not to take any unilateral actions because it would make immigration reform harder next year. But Obama told Boehner, “Sorry about that. I’m going to keep my promise and move forward with executive action soon.”
When news of the conversation became public a week later, Boehner responded with the most forceful language he had ever used about DACA, saying Obama’s “own executive orders have led directly to the humanitarian crisis along the Southern border, giving false hope to children and their families that if they enter the country illegally they will be allowed to stay.”
Boehner also said, “In our conversation last week, I told the president what I have been telling him for months: the American people and their elected officials don’t trust him to enforce the law as written. Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue,” matching his previous pattern of using the threat of inaction on immigration reform to ward off future executive overreach by the president.
Since then, Boehner has used a low-key approach when pressed about calls to address DACA in the border bill.
“I’m focused on the recommendations of our border control working group, and we’re operating within those guidelines,” he said last week when asked about Cruz’s proposal.
When Obama announced DACA at the height of the 2012 presidential contest, Boehner and other GOP congressional leaders were nearly silent about the new program.
According to an archive on his website, Boehner did not release a press release about Obama’s move. Headlines from that month included “GOP at a Loss for Message on DREAM Act” (Roll Call), “GOP grasps for ideas on immigration” (Politico), and “GOP Avoids Taking a Position on New Immigration Enforcement Policy” (Congressional Quarterly).
He told reporters then DACA “puts everyone in a difficult position. I think we all have a concern for those who are caught in this trap, through no fault of their own are here. But the president’s actions are going to make it much more difficult for us to work in a bipartisan way to get to a permanent solution” and suggested the policy may have been unlawful.
Roughly a year later, the House voted to defund DACA via an amendment offered by Rep. Steve King (R-IA). Only six Republicans voted no, one of whom was Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), a key Boehner ally.
House Republicans have provided a variety of explanations for why Boehner has been reticent to fight Obama on the issue.
A senior lawmaker close to Boehner said the speaker is trying not to roil the waters for a future push for immigration reform.
“My guess, this is not from Boehner, is that many of us, including the Speaker, have said we need to fix immigration. So, there’s no reason to make it worse than what it already is. You don’t want to get it worse than it already is. But we’re going to have to take care of this border first before we even get to that,” the lawmaker said.
Other Republicans said the move is strategic – that Obamacare is a more potent weapon politically than immigration and more friendly terrain from which the GOP can wage the fight against Obama.
Also, they say any major executive amnesty for Obama would be politically disastrous for the president, lessening the likelihood he will issue one, in their minds.
“If Obama does that, he loses the Senate with that one act. He would be dramatically misreading the situation,” said a House Republican.
A senior GOP aide described the impact on the Senate landscape as “fucking nuclear,” potentially causing a GOP wave election.
Recent polls have shown the border crisis has caused a fundamental shift in public approval, with a ten point swing in the number of people who say border security should be the first concern of immigration reform.
A GOP leadership aide also said Boehner’s rhetorical emphasis on issues other than immigration was intended to illustrate that Obama’s executive overreach has occurred across multiple issues, not just immigration, an issue liberal activists had demonstrated they were ready to attack the GOP over.
Senior House Republicans, asked about Obama’s threats to expand DACA to as many as six million people, offered a number of responses.
“The president is wrong. He’s wrong about the border being secure. He’s causing this problem coming in and that’s why the House is going to act. The best thing that we can do is reunite these children with their families. The president had the presidents of these countries in, we had them in, and they want their children to come back,” said incoming Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
“The president doesn’t have the authority to write laws,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the incoming Whip.
“Well, we’ll talk later about that,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers.
“Call my office,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).
When Obama implemented DACA in 2012, the response from top Republicans was practically silence. With the border burning, the party won’t lack a vibrant response, but the situation may be out of Boehner’s control by then.