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The midterms may have killed bold executive action on immigration

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Throughout the fall, President Obama has said that after the midterm election he would use his executive authority to create a fairly broad program to immunize many otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants from deportation. On Election Day itself, spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated that this is happening between now and the New Year.

I'm just not sure I believe him.

Not that I doubt the president's sincerity. I haven't gazed into his soul on the subject, but the best read I have on White House officials is that they genuinely believe that they are going to do this. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has explicitly reassured Congressional Hispanic Caucus members that there will be no flip-flop, and other administration officials have said the same to a variety of relevant players on and off Capitol Hill. I just think they may be mistaken about their own likely behavior.

Given the GOP takeover of the Senate, I just think it's likely that Democrats will survey the post-election landscape and have a change of heart. That probably won't mean a complete betrayal of the promise. But instead of the kind of broad action advocates are hoping for, it's likely that we'll end up with something cosmetic like yet another reboot of the secure communities initiative or another effort to better explain and clarify its existing memos about priorities.

To see why, just think about the speech that the president would have given had he announced this initiative back in June. He would have said that immigration reform was a pressing problem. He would have praised the Senate for passing a bipartisan reform bill with an overwhelming majority behind it. He would have noted that the House of Representatives had refused to bring any kind of immigration legislation to the floor. He would have argued that the public was behind him, and made the humanitarian case for action, and flagged the business community's desire for reform. He would have bemoaned Republican obstructionism. And he would have plowed ahead with a controversial expansion of executive authority.

His argument, in other words, would have been that House Republicans were obstructing something the public, the business community, and even a bipartisan majority of the Senate wanted. But can you really cry obstruction right after losing an election? Republicans are now able to claim not just that Obama was stretching his authority in a novel way, but doing so specifically to overturn an adverse result in the midterms.

"When I take executive action, I want to make sure that it's sustainable," Obama told NBC's Chuck Todd in September, explaining his deliberate pace. Does action really look more sustainable today than it did back then?

Even with control of the Senate, the GOP can't stop Obama from following through on his promise. But as Brian Beutler has written, with the Senate in Republican hands come the New Year, they'll be positioned "to place 'executive amnesty' at the center of proximate fights over funding the government and increasing the debt limit."

The basic dynamic from the summertime where Democratic Senators from states with low Latino populations aren't eager to have a huge throwdown over the issue remains in place. Can Obama really count on Democratic Senators from West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Montana to stick with him on the issue? And if they start to break, won't Angus King, Debbie Stabenow, and Sherrod Brown also have some doubts?

Of course the administration won't say that broad executive relief is dead, just as they didn't say it the last time they delayed it. They'll simply say what they said the last two times, namely that the time isn't right. The problem is that there's never a perfect time to take a controversial unilateral action on immigration. So far, with every passing month, the circumstances have gotten less ideal, not more. A sweeping electoral win in 2016 — a by no means unlikely outcome — would change that. But nothing else will.