Dozens of House Republicans have signed onto a new letter that insists the party include language in the upcoming spending bill to prevent President Obama from taking unilateral action on immigration, escalating a simmering fight between Congress and the White House.
Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who organized the letter, said Congress needs to use its power of the purse to defend its own powers to write immigration policy — and he said he believes there could be enough support even in the Democratic-controlled Senate to win.
“I’m not going down without a fight,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times.
The letter is to be issued Thursday, but the debate is already heated.
Mr. Obama has vowed to claim executive powers to grant tentative legal status to potentially millions of illegal immigrants, and to act by the end of the year.
Republican leaders have warned him against that move, saying it would “poison” chances for getting a real immigration deal done in the next Congress, and could tarnish prospects for bipartisanship on a whole host of other issues when the GOP has control of both chambers next year.
“I think President Obama has a duty to help build the trust we all need to move forward together, not to double-down on old ways of doing business,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican and the incoming Senate majority leader, said as he opened the lame-duck session Wednesday. “That’s why I think moving forward with the unilateral action on immigration he’s planned would be a big mistake.”
Democratic leaders have rallied around the president, urging him to act. They say congressional Republicans had a chance to pass a bill and squandered it, leaving the White House as the only backstop for illegal immigrants hoping to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
“The president has the legal authority and moral imperative to provide relief for over 7 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the shadows,” the Congressional Progressive Caucus, made up of the House’s most liberal members, said in a memo to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama is considering a wide range of measures that could halt deportations and extend work permits to anywhere from several hundred thousand illegal immigrants to the 7 million figure the liberal lawmakers cited.
Most illegal immigrants already have little fear of deportation as long as they don’t have a major criminal record or haven’t been previously deported and snuck back in. Mr. Obama, however, is poised to go further and grant them work permits, allowing them to legally compete for U.S. jobs.
Republicans, emboldened by last week’s elections, are increasingly rallying to try to stop Mr. Obama.
Mr. Salmon said more than 50 of his colleagues have signed onto his letter asking GOP leaders to attach a legislative provision to an upcoming spending bill that would prohibit Mr. Obama from taking any unilateral action on immigration.
The spending bill must pass before the new Congress is sworn in, which means it would have to get through a Democratic-controlled Senate. But Mr. Salmon said he believes there are enough Democrats who would defend Congress’s power to control immigration laws that the legislation could get the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate.
He also said Hispanic voters should back the move because otherwise, there’s no chance Congress will act on immigration next year, dooming illegal immigrants to remain in whatever status Mr. Obama tries to confer upon them.
Many lawmakers have questioned whether Mr. Obama has the power to halt deportations and grant tentative legal status to illegal immigrants, as he’s already done with the so-called “dreamers,” or young adult illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
But the federal courts routinely throw out challenges, arguing opponents can’t prove an actual injury from the policies and so they have no standing to sue as plaintiffs.
Mr. Salmon said he wouldn’t put it past Mr. Obama to ignore Congress even if it did pass a prohibition on him taking executive action, but he said at least then lawmakers would have standing to sue and to get the courts involved as referees.
Republicans have tried to use spending bills to halt Mr. Obama’s priorities in the past — most notably last year, when the House GOP insisted on defunding Obamacare as part of the annual spending bills. The Democratic Senate balked, and the dispute sent the government into a partial shutdown.
Mr. Salmon said he isn’t trying for a repeat.
“That’s not the direction I’m trying to go. I’m not trying to make this some kind of ultimatum,” he said.