- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The House GOP heads for its annual policy retreat Thursday in a very different place on immigration than just a year ago, when House Speaker John A. Boehner had hoped to use the gathering as a springboard to push his troops to approve a broad bill legalizing illegal immigrants.

Now, as congressional Republicans prepare to gather for another retreat, the conversation has completely shifted.

Mr. Boehner is leading a party that on Wednesday, a day ahead of the retreat, will pass a bill through the House canceling President Obama’s deportation amnesty and boosting pro-enforcement policies. Senate Republicans, who will join the House GOP for a joint retreat this year, will look for ways to push that legislation through their chamber too.

“Our goal here is to fund the Department of Homeland Security. Our second goal is to stop the president’s executive overreach,” Mr. Boehner said Tuesday as he outlined the immigration fight. “This is not the way our government was intended to work. The president said 22 times that he didn’t have the authority to do what he eventually did. He knows the truth here, and so do the American people.”

The GOP predicted near unity in Wednesday’s House votes, signaling just how much the politics of the issue have changed over the last 12 months.

“They’ve just come off an election. That makes a big difference,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican from an immigrant-heavy district who has supported Mr. Boehner’s previous efforts to pass immigration legislation, though she also said her colleagues are reacting to a strong political message from their voters back home.

“Right after an election you are very much in touch with the people, and the folks from their districts are expressing their concern about what they see as immigration run amok and the border crisis, when the president was saying, ‘Hey, the border is secure,’ But we see border kids coming through, and that caused a real shift in the people’s mood,” she said.

The votes Wednesday will come as part of the debate over funding the Department of Homeland Security through September, which is the end of the fiscal year.

Republicans have scheduled votes on one amendment to cancel Mr. Obama’s new amnesty, announced in November, which would apply to more than 4 million illegal immigrants, and on another amendment to cancel the president’s previous 2012 amnesty that applied to so-called Dreamers, or young adult illegal immigrants.

Democrats called those proposals poison pills and pointed to Mr. Obama’s promise to veto any legislation that tries to stop his amnesties. They said Republicans were holding homeland security money hostage to their own immigration demands.

“This is frivolous,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “Why don’t we live up to our responsibilities in a bipartisan way here to protect and defend the American people, to live up to the character of our country, which is a nation of immigrants?”

The White House has defended Mr. Obama’s actions as lawful and constitutional, saying that previous presidents have also granted “deferred action” — a suspension of deportations, along with work permits to allow illegal immigrants to compete legally for jobs.

In addition to Congress, Mr. Obama’s policy is also being challenged in the courts, where 25 GOP-leaning states have sued to stop him — a unity that couldn’t have been found among Republicans until recently.

Lawmakers and analysts said the 2014 House GOP retreat, held in Cambridge, Maryland, was decisive in the shift.

Mr. Boehner and his top lieutenants went into the closed-door retreat promising a set of principles for reform, which they said would guide the House’s action as it tried to match the Senate’s broad legalization bill, passed to tremendous fanfare a year earlier.

But opponents rallied to block the leaders.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, had armed House Republicans with a report on the costs of legalization, and the Eagle Forum produced a report arguing that the GOP had little chance of gaining politically from legalization.

Meanwhile Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, had organized several dozen Republicans to stand up at the meeting and speak out against legalization, arguing Mr. Obama couldn’t be trusted to carry out any laws the GOP passed given his past behavior.

GOP pollsters who addressed the meeting also told lawmakers that voters weren’t fired up over the issue, countering what many Republicans had feared after seeing Hispanic turnout hurt them in the 2012 elections.

“There was an accumulation of knowledge,” Mr. King said in an interview Tuesday.

Within a week Mr. Boehner and his fellow GOP leaders had changed their tone, saying that while they wanted to move forward, they didn’t have a president they could work with.

The GOP leaders suffered one more embarrassment last summer, on a bill designed to combat the surge of tens of thousands of illegal immigrant families and unaccompanied children who stormed the border trying to gain entry.

A conservative rebellion forced the Republican leaders to pull their plans, which they’d hoped to pass with the help of Democrats, and instead negotiate with the conservatives, approving a bill that gave Mr. Obama less than a quarter of the money he wanted. At the urging of conservatives, the House also approved a bill that would have limited Mr. Obama’s amnesty for Dreamers.

This week’s votes will go further, canceling the amnesty program altogether.

Immigrant rights advocates, who had long counted on at least some Republican support for legalization, said the GOP’s new unity was lamentable.

“There’s no daylight anymore between House Republicans on immigration reform,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group. “So much for a ‘Republican divide’ on immigration, so much for the Republican attempt to expand its base, and so much for responsible governance.”

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