Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson faced off against House Republicans Tuesday over the controversial immigration actions taken by President Obama.
Johnson, who headed a months-long effort to search for potential executive actions Obama could take, said the president was within the law when granting deferred deportation to an estimated 5 million illegal immigrants.
Johnson chief stressed that the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, which crafts legally binding opinions for federal agencies, signed off on all of Obama’s moves.
"There were some things they told us they thought we did not have the authority to do," he said. "The analysis was very thoughtful, very time-consuming and very extensive.
Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzFederal ethics chief resists House GOP call for private interview Ethics chief thrust into spotlight by Trump battle Sunday shows preview: Trump allies appear after John Lewis criticism MORE (R-Utah), who is set to become chairman of the powerful Oversight Committee next year, pressed Johnson on Obama’s use of executive power.
The congressman played a video clip that showed Obama, during a speech in Chicago last week, saying to a heckler, "What you’re not paying attention to is the fact that I just took an action to change the law."
Chaffetz said Obama was admitting that he had not just simply acted within the law, but changed it outright.
"He acted within our existing legal authority," Johnson responded. "Listen I’ve been a lawyer 30 years. Somebody plays me an eight-word excerpt from a broader speech, I know to be suspicious."
After a pause, Johnson added, "That was very nice."
Republicans also questioned how the government would weed out fraudulent applications for deportation relief under Obama’s program. Johnson said he shares that concern and said standards are being developed.
"There will have to be some sort of documented proof" of eligibility, he said.
Republicans have broadly denounced Obama’s moves on immigration and have vowed to take action to try and prevent his orders from being carried out.
House Republicans on Tuesday discussed a plan that would fund the government through September but provide only a short-term funding extension for agencies dealing with immigration matters. The strategy would allow the GOP to revisit the issue next year, when they will control both chambers of Congress.
Johnson criticized that funding plan, which has been dubbed the "Cromnibus" because it would combine an omnibus funding the government with a continuing resolution (CR) for agencies, such as Homeland Security.
"I know that there are some contemplating some form of CR for the Department of Homeland Security to get us to March," Johnson said. "That is, in my judgment, a very bad idea for homeland security because, during that period of a CR, we cannot engage in new starts.
"We’ve got some homeland security priorities that need to be funded now," he added. "For example, we’re back in a presidential election cycle. I cannot hire new Secret Service agents, until I get an appropriations bill passed by this Congress, not another CR for a couple of months."
Johnson repeatedly pressed for increased funding from Congress, which he said would allow for stronger border security measures.
"I’m not going to sit here and declare we have a secure border," he said. "We can do better."
Jonson has crafted a plan to increase collaboration among agencies in order to toughen border security and said he will soon announce the heads of new inter-agency task forces with responsibility for certain areas of the border.
"I cannot continue to fund our enhanced detention capability in Texas with another CR that gets me to March," he said. "I need the help of Congress to support and build upon border security, which I believe all of you support."
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the panel, said he looks forward to working with Johnson to pass a border security bill in the next Congress and noted the high passions surrounding the issue.
"I don’t envy your position right now," McCaul said to Johnson with a smile. "But it's been a productive hearing."