HERSHEY, Pa. | Senate Republican leaders signaled Thursday that they are not willing to hold homeland security funding hostage in order to force President Obama to reverse his deportation amnesty, undercutting conservatives’ strategy and diminishing the impact of this week’s House votes.
On Wednesday, House Republicans approved legislation that would cancel Mr. Obama’s 2012 amnesty for young adult Dreamers and his November policy that would apply to illegal immigrant parents. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said his members would struggle to overcome a Democratic filibuster.
That leaves few alternatives to force Mr. Obama to rescind his order, which Republicans insist is beyond his authority as president.
“Obviously, we want to give our members an opportunity to vote, to express their opposition to the president’s action. But we also realize that at the end of the day, to get through the Senate is going to take 60 votes,” Mr. Thune told reporters in Pennsylvania, where House and Senate Republicans were gathered for a strategy retreat.
Among other decisions at the retreat, Republicans put an end to the idea of raising the gas tax to pay for more infrastructure projects.
“We won’t pass the gas tax,” Rep. Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, told reporters.
President Obama, meanwhile, huddled with Senate Democrats at their retreat in Baltimore to align their policies while their party is in the minority in both houses of Congress for the first time in his presidency.
That leaves Republicans on offense, but Democrats still have more than enough troops to filibuster bills if they can maintain unity in the Senate, or to uphold presidential vetoes.
Mr. Obama has issued a veto threat if Republicans insist on trying to cancel the amnesties as part of the homeland security funding bill, and Senate Democrats said they would lead a filibuster.
A stalemate could imperil funding for the Homeland Security Department that is slated to expire Feb. 27.
Mr. Thune said it would be politically treacherous for Republicans to refuse to pass the homeland security bill, especially amid a spate of attacks and plots by Islamist terrorists.
Just this week, the FBI said it had thwarted a plot by an Ohio man to detonate pipe bombs at the U.S. Capitol and follow up the attack with a rifle assault. The man was arrested Wednesday after he bought two guns to use in the attack, the FBI said.
“It also highlights and presses upon all of us the threats that face America and going back to the importance of getting the Homeland Security funded,” said House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington state.
“We need to be very serious. We need to take appropriate steps to make sure our agencies … have the resources they need to get the job done to protect our people. It really is the No. 1 responsibility of the federal government. And we will take this seriously and we will be working very closely with the president,” she said.
As part of the Homeland Security Department funding bill, the House voted 237-190 to cancel Mr. Obama’s amnesty for illegal immigrant parents and voted 218-209 to cancel the 2012 amnesty for Dreamers, who are illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and who are considered the most sympathetic figures in the immigration debate.
Republican lawmakers cast the votes not as an immigration fight but as a chance to reassert Congress’ power to write the laws, and to send a signal that Mr. Obama should not try to write them himself.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson pleaded with Republicans on Thursday to drop their fight and approve money without turning his department into a “political volleyball.”
“Recent world events — the terrorist attacks in Paris, Ottawa, Sydney and elsewhere, along with the public calls by terrorist organizations for attacks on Western objectives — call for increased vigilance in homeland security,” Mr. Johnson said.
If Congress and the president fail to agree on funding before Feb. 27, the department would have to curtail some activities and couldn’t move ahead with spending on upgrades to White House security or replacing technology on the border. All of the department’s law enforcement functions would continue, however.
Mr. Johnson has defended Mr. Obama’s executive actions to grant tentative legal status to illegal immigrants, which also entitles them to work permits allowing them to legally compete for jobs. Mr. Johnson says carving out a group of illegal immigrants he won’t deport makes it easier for him to go after those he wants to deport.
Rank-and-file House Republicans insisted that votes to stop Mr. Obama’s immigration moves were valuable even if the bills didn’t make it to the president’s desk.
“I think it’s a win. I think it sends a message back,” said Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, a newly elected Georgia Republican.
He said voters back home would understand that lawmakers had to confront Mr. Obama, who he and his colleagues believe acted unlawfully. “I don’t believe America rewards bad behavior,” he said.