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Here’s the Republican strategy for stopping Obama on immigration

Speaker Boehner's going after Obama's executive actions on immigration with his gavel.
Speaker Boehner's going after Obama's executive actions on immigration with his gavel.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, they're ready to take on Barack Obama on immigration.

They're seething about what they see as repeated executive overreach by the president in the final months of last year, especially when it came to his actions to protect millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

Republicans are planning to start this week, with a bill that would temporarily fund the Department of Homeland Security — on the condition that Obama's executive actions be stopped.

Here's how they want to stop Obama — and how they're trying to get the bill through.

How do Republicans want to stop Obama's executive actions?

This week, the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security through September. It doesn't yet include anything limiting Obama's executive actions — but those provisions will be added on the House floor, via amendments.

Republicans agreed to a deal in December that funds most of the federal government through September. But they deliberately crafted the deal so that DHS would run out of money on February 27 — punting it into the new year, when Republicans would control both chambers of Congress, and could tie it to the immigration fight.

Republicans have introduced a range of amendments to the bill. Some of them are declarations of the "sense of the Congress," which don't do anything in policy terms. But the first amendment the House will consider, sponsored by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), explicitly prohibits any funds from being used on Obama's new proposal to protect parents of US citizens and green-card holders from deportation. An additional amendment filed by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) would defund the existing program Obama created in 2012 to extend the same protections to young unauthorized immigrants who would have qualified for the DREAM Act.


Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL). (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call)

Can Congress simply defund the deferred-action programs?

The problem with Congress simply "defunding" any program that would allow immigrants to apply for protection from deportation is that Congress isn't giving the money for those programs to begin with. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes immigration applications, is funded entirely by application fees. That means that it can keep going, whether Congress wants to give it money or not.

The amendments that the House will vote on would prevent any money — even fees collected by USCIS — from going to implement the new policies Obama outlined in his memos last November, including the new deferred-action programs as well as changes to border security and legal immigration.

It's not clear that's something Congress can simply declare. In a ruling last November, the House Appropriations Committee said that it wouldn't be able to use an appropriations bill to defund USCIS. That decision might not automatically apply in the new Congress, but the committee's still chaired by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), who issued the ruling last year.

Congress would, however, be allowed to simply prevent USCIS from processing any applications once they're submitted — so it's possible that Rep. Rogers will just decide that "preventing funds from being used" is the same as "preventing applications from being processed," and let the amendment go through.

How broadly are Republicans targeting Obama's immigration policy?

daca clinic

People attend an orientation class in filing up their application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program

Republicans' problems with Obama on immigration predate his latest executive actions. That's why their defunding amendments don't just target the actions announced in November, but the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which currently protects about 700,000 young unauthorized immigrants — as well.

They're also attempting to reverse memos the Obama administration released during the president's first term, which instruct ICE agents to treat some unauthorized immigrants as "low priorities" for deportation. In fact, preventing any funds from being spent to enforce those memos is right up there with ending the new deferred-action program: both of them are part of the first amendment the House will consider.

This is something House Republicans have attempted to do before (though none of their proposals ever made it into law). But there's evidence that ICE agents on the ground didn't exactly implement those memos when they were released, so it's not clear what reversing them would do.

Is the plan enough to appease hardline conservatives?

steve king

Rep. Steve King (R-IA). (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call)

Past proposals from Republican leadership on immigration, like their plan to address the border crisis of summer 2014, haven't gone far enough for immigration hardliners like Rep. Steve King (R-IA). That matters because if enough conservatives are dissatisfied with the bill, it might not even pass the House. But King's been included in high-level meetings about the Republican plan for 2015, and conservatives in the House appear to be thrilled with the plan: one Republican said that House Republicans are "as close to 100 percentas we've ever gotten" in support.

Will the DHS funding bill targeting Obama's immigration actions pass?

Harry Reid, stone-faced

Harry Reid would like to know if you really think so little of him. Win McNamee, Getty

The bill will probably pass the House this week. But even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he'll take it up in the Senate, it's not expected to pass there. Republicans only have 54 votes in the Senate, and they'd need 60 to break a Democratic filibuster.

Before Obama announced his executive actions on immigration, a handful of Democratic Senators said that he shouldn't act unilaterally and should wait for Congress to pass an immigration bill. Republicans might be hoping that some of those senators would be willing to support a bill to stop Obama's "executive overreach." But most of the senators who expressed concerns about Obama acting on his own have come out against the House Republican plan — they'd prefer that Congress act on immigration, but they don't think it's appropriate to hold DHS funding hostage.

Even if Republicans were able to wrangle enough Democratic votes to pass, President Obama obviously won't sign it. As unlikely as it is that Republicans could get six Democratic Senators to pass a bill, it's even more unlikely that they'd be able to peel off 13 to override a veto.

What happens after the bill fails?

Republicans and Democrats have until February 27th to agree on a way to fund DHS. If they come to an agreement — for example, if Republicans agree to vote for a funding bill that doesn't address President Obama's immigration actions, and attack those actions via a stand-alone bill instead — they'll be able to get funding through. If not, DHS will shut down on February 27th.

Would Republicans really let DHS shut down instead of giving in and passing a funding bill that wouldn't touch the immigration programs?

Maybe. Rep. Michael McCaul, who's chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Wolf Blitzer on January 7 that "the responsible individuals like myself have no desire to shut down this department." But there's a difference between actually wanting to shut DHS down and being willing to let it happen. Some Republicans, including House Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX), are already saying that it would be Obama's fault for shutting down DHS instead of being willing to undo his executive actions — indicating that they're okay with a shutdown, since it wouldn't be their fault.

government shutdown

Like this, but just for DHS. (Jewel Samad/AFP)

Would a DHS shutdown stop the deferred-action program?

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers immigration applications — including applications for the new programs — is funded by application fees, not by Congress. So it wouldn't be shutting down. Implementation of the deferred-action program for parents (applications are currently expected to open this spring) might be slowed down by the funding strain, but it wouldn't stop.

What would actually shut down at DHS?

Not a ton. The law that regulates government shutdowns provides an exception for activities "necessary for the safety of human life or protection of property." Needless to say, that covers a lot of what DHS does: law enforcement (including immigration enforcement), customs and travel functions, the Secret Service, and counterterrorism all fall under this category.

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