It's easy to forget now, but it was just under a year ago that House Republican leaders presented their principles for immigration reform to their members, in the hope that the one-page document would lead, finally, to a bill the party could support. The entreaty failed, succumbing to election-year fears and a deep distrust of President Obama by rank-and-file members. But the mere release of the principles was significant in putting the historically conservative House leadership on record, for the first time, supporting legal status for undocumented immigrants and even citizenship for many of the so-called Dreamer children.
By Wednesday, however, House Republicans had done, in the description of Representative Luis Gutierrez, an about-face on immigration. In a series of votes on a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security, the GOP majority moved to block all funding for the president's executive actions on immigration. Going even further, Republicans voted to stop Obama's three-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, effectively calling for the deportation of kids brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
"What happened to that principle? You just gave it up?" Gutierrez, the Democratic reform advocate, asked in a floor speech. "It doesn’t mean anything to you anymore? You don’t care about children?" Democrats also assailed the GOP for making the immigration fight on a security bill just a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Republicans didn't even talk much about immigration; instead, they turned to the Constitution, castigating Obama for abusing his authority when he went around Congress to reshape the system on his own. When Boehner gave his speech, he read aloud the 22 times the president himself had said he didn't have the power to do what he eventually did. ("I am not king. I cannot do these things by myself," the speaker quoted Obama, in one example from 2011.)
No issue in recent years has illustrated the difficulty Boehner has had in steering his party like immigration. As he likes to remind people, he voiced support for broad reforms on the day after Obama won reelection in 2012. And indeed, the whole point—politically at least—for the Republican establishment's push to work with the president on immigration in 2013 was to avoid exactly this scenario: a vote that Democrats could spin as anti-immigrant just as the 2016 presidential campaign is getting underway. But at times, Boehner sounded like the reluctant parent disciplining an unruly child. "We do not take this action lightly," he said, "but quite simply, there is no alternative." The speaker praised lawmakers who were working to fix the broken immigration system—"especially," he added, "since I am one of them."
Republicans do have a point in criticizing Obama for reversing himself on the question of whether he had the legal authority to make such significant changes through executive action. But rather than limit themselves to reversing the moves he made last fall, the leadership added an amendment blocking the DACA program that more than 600,000 people have already signed up for. Even some Republicans balked at that measure, which passed narrowly despite defections from 26 moderates. And the conservative bent to the legislation means it has no chance of getting through the Republican-led Senate, much less being signed into law by the president.
Boehner's aggressive move may or may not help sooth the conservatives who tried to force him from office last week. But as attention turns to the 2016 campaign and the daunting electoral math for Republicans, what peril will it bring his party?