House Republican leaders presented a plan to immediately respond to President Obama's executive immigration actions, but at the heart of their proposal is a stark recognition: There isn't a whole lot they can do about it.
"This is a serious breach of our Constitution. It's a serious threat to our system of government," Speaker John Boehner told reporters after the conference-wide meeting in the Capitol, referring to Obama's decision to circumvent Congress and shield as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Then he added a key acknowledgment: "Frankly, we have limited options and limited abilities to deal with it directly."
Rather than risk a government shutdown after federal funding expires next week, Boehner proposed a plan to approve an omnibus appropriations bill that would fund the government through the end of September with one exception: The Department of Homeland Security would receive money only through March, allowing the new Republican majority in Congress next year to take another try at blocking Obama's directive. The House would separately vote—as soon as this week—on a largely symbolic measure disapproving of the president's action and giving lawmakers an opportunity to formally express their opposition.
Among the GOP's other options are suing the administration, again, or trying to block funding to implement Obama's plan directly. Boehner hasn't ruled out a lawsuit, but it would take time to be settled in the courts, and he knows that a more explicit assault on the new policy would never make it past the Senate until Republicans take control next month. "I think [lawmakers] understand that it's going to be difficult to take meaningful action as long as we've got Democratic control of the Senate," Boehner said.
A senior Republican aide said after the meeting that reaction from the party's rank-and-file was "pretty positive" but short of "overwhelming" in support. And in an indication that the sales job was not complete, Boehner told reporters that "no decisions have been made at this point" on how to move forward. By passing such a large spending measure rather than the kind of stopgap bill Congress has approved many times before, Republicans are trying to salvage months of bipartisan negotiations between the House and Senate appropriations committees. But the aide said some conservatives spoke up in favor of a short-term spending bill for the whole government, arguing that it would give Republicans more power over spending decisions once the Senate is in their hands in January.
The details may be different, but the dynamic is a familiar one for Boehner, who once again must navigate the difficult path between his own desire for pragmatism and the do-or-die fighting spirit of many of his members. Conservative Representative Tim Huelskamp scoffed at the plan as "a punt" at at event after the meeting, while Representative Joe Barton said, "on principle, we should not compromise."
Democrats and the Obama administration don't like the plan either, but whether they would risk the possible alternative of a shutdown by opposing it is unclear. GOP leaders presented the proposal while across Capitol Hill, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was defending the legality of Obama's immigration move at a hearing. He warned Republicans against adopting the leadership's plan to fund his department only temporarily, saying it would prevent him from hiring Secret Service agents to protect presidential candidates and from implementing other needed security improvements. "That is, in my judgment, a very bad idea for homeland security," Johnson said.