Republicans huddle to counter Obama on immigration

Republicans in and out of Congress are urging GOP leaders to move quickly on immigration reform in response to President Obama’s executive actions.

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The GOP voices say Republican lawmakers should take the reins of the immigration debate with new legislation, both to bolster their party ahead of the 2016 elections and to push back against Obama.

“The best way to criticize governing through fiat is to offer an alternative,” said Republican activist Grover Norquist.

“What appears to be the smart move, and what they’re going to do, is do immigration reform through normal legislative [channels],” said Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “Do it in a way that Republicans find acceptable, meaning take the border seriously [and] think of America’s economic needs. Move forward on that and let him [Obama] be over in the corner stamping his feet.”

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE (R-Ohio) has tried previously to move immigration reform, but opposition from his conservative wing cut those efforts short.

Incoming Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) backed then-President George W. Bush’s push for reform in 2006, voting in favor of a comprehensive bill that year. The bill never became law, however, and McConnell voted against a similar measure the following year.

When 68 senators, including 14 Republicans, voted in favor of reform last year, McConnell was one of 32 “nays.”

Both BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE and McConnell are now under pressure to wage the immigration battle by denying funding for the agencies overseeing Obama’s executive actions, which will shelter as many as 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation and offer them the chance to work in the country legally. Conservatives are also pressing their leaders to expand the GOP’s lawsuit against the White House on ObamaCare to include immigration policy.

But a number of Republicans see both of those strategies as losers.

Alfonso Aguilar, who headed the Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush, said there’s “no way” the defunding route would work because the key agency — the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — operates on a fee basis, in lieu of congressional appropriations. The same concern has been raised by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

As for the lawsuit tactic, Aguilar, now head of the American Principles in Action's Latino Partnership, argued simply that that approach would fail.

“The case law is not on the Republican side,” he said.

Republicans calling for legislation say there is plenty of low-hanging fruit to pick, and that doing so would help the party in 2016, when it hopes to retake the White House and keep the Senate while defending a hefty 24 seats.

Doing nothing risks alienating Hispanics and other immigrant voters ahead of those high-stakes elections.

“We have an obligation to do something — the ball is in our court — and in spite of whatever political considerations there may be on this, the public is ultimately going to judge us on whether we’ve found a solution to this problem or not,” said Al Cardenas, former head of the American Conservative Union, who’s now pushing Republicans in Congress for reforms.

Still, there are significant obstacles, including conservative lawmakers, activists and talk-show hosts who are wary of efforts to provide legalization and citizenship for illegal immigrants, which the critics consider “amnesty.”

They are sure to push 2016 Republican presidential front-runners to move hard right on immigration.

With that in mind, GOP immigration reformers are calling for more focused reforms, rather than one big package.

Proposals to expand visas for high-tech workers, streamline a guest-worker program for the nation’s farms, establish a mandatory E-verify system for businesses and create an exit-visa registry to rein in overstays could all pass both chambers with bipartisan support, the GOP reform advocates said.

“It’s a losing issue for the Democrats if the Republicans just take this step-by-step,” Norquist said.

Obama and the Democrats have largely opposed that piecemeal approach for fear that passing the more popular elements of immigration reform would make it all but impossible to move more contentious provisions, particularly the creation of a pathway to citizenship.

But influential Republicans say the president would be hard-pressed to veto legislation that hit his desk with Democrats on board.

“Republicans can pass these in the House and Senate and the president’s going to have to veto or sign it — put up or shut up,” Norquist said. “He can’t play this game, ‘How come you guys won’t do X?’ We just did X, buster.”

Some GOP committee heads are already making moves to address the issue.

Rep. Mike McCaul (Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is crafting legislation to bolster border enforcement.

McCaul’s proposal is in its early stages, but his office said it will be “stronger” than the bipartisan bill he passed through the committee with unanimous support last year.

Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteRosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week Conservative pressure on Sessions grows Clock ticking down on NSA surveillance powers MORE (Va.), head of the House Judiciary Committee, is another Republican with immigration on his radar. On Tuesday, the Virginia Republican is staging a hearing to examine Obama’s “overreach” on deportation policy.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Thanks to the farm lobby, the US is stuck with a broken ethanol policy MORE (R-Iowa), the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Republicans are considering “a number of things” on immigration, including proposals “to nullify” Obama’s recent executive action. But Grassley also warned that “any legislation beyond that faces new hurdles largely because President Obama missed a big opportunity to work with a new Congress.”

McConnell and Boehner have vowed action in the wake of Obama’s move, but neither has given any indication what they plan to do, or when.

Boehner tried to move immigration legislation this year, floating a series of reform “principles” designed to guide the discussion. But a revolt from conservative lawmakers angry over a legalization provision forced him to shelve the plan almost immediately.

With that episode in mind, some Republican immigration reformers are looking for the Senate to take the lead on the issue next year. Aguilar described Boehner’s record on the issue as “pathetic.”

“He has a hard time dealing with his conservative members. He doesn’t talk to them,” Aguilar said. “I just don’t see him leading.”

McConnell, for his part, will be newly empowered to lead the Senate, but his primary goal is to retain the upper chamber in 2016. And moving anything on immigration would be risky.

Additionally, three conservative members — Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State MORE (Ky.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE (Fla.) — are mulling potential runs at the White House, which could complicate matters for McConnell.

With those dynamics in mind, Aguilar said success will hinge on the efforts of rank-and-file conservatives. He cited lawmakers such as Paul, Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSupreme Court takes on same-sex wedding cake case House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama Trump really will shrink government, starting with national monuments MORE (R-Utah) and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who have expressed an interest in reforms and can sway fellow conservatives to back them. Support from traditional reform champions such as Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration We are running out of time to protect Dreamers US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (R-S.C.), he added, simply won’t be enough.

“This cannot be just led by moderates or by leadership,” Aguilar said. “You’re going to need conservative players who have good conservative credentials, in line with the Tea Party, to push this.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are also hoping the Republicans’ anger over Obama’s order translates into action.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, said Obama’s move “will bring the Republicans to act.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she’s hoping “there will be a rethinking … by the Republicans … that we should have comprehensive immigration reform.” And Obama is practically begging GOP leaders to pass reforms that will make his executive steps dispensable.

“The day I sign that bill into law,” Obama said in announcing the new policies, “the actions I take will no longer be necessary.”