Republicans issued stern warnings to President Obama on Wednesday not to act on his own on immigration, but Mr. Obama vowed to plow ahead nonetheless with moves to halt deportations and grant legal status to many illegal immigrants.
Sen. Ted Cruz and a handful of his GOP colleagues said it was the first “constitutional crisis” of the new era of GOP control on Capitol Hill, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the likely new majority leader come January, said Mr. Obama would be souring relations with Congress if he acted alone.
“It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull to say, ‘If you guys don’t do what I want, I’m going to do it on my own,’” the Kentucky Republican said. “I hope he won’t do that, because I do think it poisons the well for the opportunity to address a very important domestic issue.”
Immigration proved to be a sore issue for Democrats in Tuesday’s elections. A handful of Democratic senators who voted last year for the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill, which would have legalized and granted eventual citizenship rights to most illegal immigrants, were defeated by GOP candidates who ran campaigns attacking them for those votes.
And even when the issue was put directly to voters, it failed. Oregon voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, rejected a ballot initiative to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said the results show voters gave a clear mandate to halt the president.
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“Republicans campaigned for the House and Senate against the Obama-Senate immigration bill and on the pledge to block President Obama’s unlawful executive amnesty,” Mr. Sessions said. “The immediate emergency facing our new majority will be fighting the president’s disastrous planned actions, and we will have not only a constitutional mandate, but also a popular mandate to do so.”
Mr. Obama rejected all of that as overheated rhetoric, saying he’s given Congress plenty of chances to pass what he wanted, and since they haven’t, he will claim powers to act without them.
He said if Congress wants to write a bill on its own to legalize illegal immigrants, he would consider signing it, and said that would replace his executive actions. But until then, he thinks he has a duty and a mandate to act.
“If in fact there is a great eagerness on the part of Republicans to tackle a broken immigration system, then they have every opportunity to do it,” he said at an afternoon news conference at the White House. “My executive actions not only do not prevent them from passing a law that supersedes those actions, but should be a spur for them to actually try to get something done.”
The president said he wouldn’t try to read any message about immigration from Tuesday’s results, saying he is acting according to the mandate he thinks he earned in his own 2012 re-election.
While Mr. Obama prepares to tangle with Republicans, he’s under intense pressure from Hispanic-rights advocates who say his failure to act on immigration ahead of the election likely cost Democrats seats in the Senate.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, the most prominent leader of the immigration legalization movement, said Mr. Obama showed “disdain and disrespect” for immigrants by not keeping his word and legalizing them over the summer.
Mr. Obama had vowed to act by the end of summer, but put it off hoping voters wouldn’t punish Democrats for it at the polls.
Mr. Gutierrez said Republican voters punished Mr. Obama anyway, while disheartened Hispanic voters stayed home, severing an important part of Democrats’ coalition.
The Illinois Democrat told Mr. Obama that with Republicans now about to control both chambers of Congress, only the White House can restore the connection between Hispanics and Democrats, and the key to that will be issuing orders to grant work permits to as many illegal immigrants as possible.
“We’re hungry for justice, we’re hungry for fairness. Do not try to serve us half a loaf,” the congressman said at a news conference in Chicago, where he was joined by immigrant-rights advocates.
Exit polling did not show a major drop in Hispanic support for Democrats. Hispanics made up about 8 percent of the national electorate, the same as in the last midterm elections in 2010. That year, about 66 percent voted for Democrats in House races, while this year it was slightly lower at 63 percent.