House GOP Centrists Push Back on Immigration

Border funding bill passes, but only after moderates force a close vote on blocking Obama policy.

Republican moderates fired a shot across the bow of House GOP leaders Wednesday, warning them not to push too far in their battle against President Obama's immigration policies.

The House voted 236-191 to approve a measure funding the Homeland Security Department while simultaneously defunding Obama's unilateral action to provide temporary deportation deferrals and work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants. But an earlier vote, on an amendment blocking Obama's 2012 executive order providing deportation deferrals to undocumented immigrants who arrived to the U.S. as children, was tighter, with 26 Republicans joining every Democrat to oppose the language.

Those votes could be even more crucial going forward, when House Republicans enter negotiations with their Senate counterparts and Obama on a final Homeland Security bill. If GOP leaders go too far in catering to their conservative immigration bloc, they could drive those moderates away—and imperil their reelections in 2016.

On Wednesday morning, House leadership held a flurry of meetings to garner more votes for the anti-DACA amendment, which was authored by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican. The House took a similar vote in August, when 11 members voted against repealing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

This time around, more than twice as many Republicans voted against a similar provision. Many of those—including a group of GOP members who represent large Latino populations, particularly Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Jeff Denham—pressured leaders not to send the message that they are in favor of deporting some of their constituents, said staff and member sources. Other GOP moderates were miffed that House leaders chose to vote on an amendment sponsored by Blackburn, who has often been critical of leadership and who voted against the omnibus spending bill last year.

Diaz-Balart said he thought the amendment strategy would backfire, because it made it even more likely that Obama would veto the overall funding bill and send Republicans back to the drawing board.

"I think that language makes it more likely that the president's executive order is there for a longer period of time," Diaz-Balart said.

Seven Republicans voted against the first amendment on the floor that defunds Obama's recent executive order along with rolling back a series of immigration enforcement priorities from 2011 to 2012.

Democrats scoffed at the notion that GOP centrists were asserting themselves.

"You don't hear from the moderate Republicans, because they've been reduced to a whisper in their caucus," said Rep. Steve Israel. "Their caucus is not about moderate Republicans. Their caucus has been taken over by a group of ideologues who are now compromising our homeland security in order to advance an ideological agenda."

Wednesday's landslide vote on passing the overall bill is more symbolic than anything. House leadership aimed high on its first effort to fund DHS, which is set to run out of cash at the end of February. This action fulfills a promise House Speaker John Boehner made late last year to fight Obama's executive action "tooth and nail." It's a plan that rank-and-file members support.

But on the other side of the Capitol, GOP senators disagree with Obama's unilateral action, yet many haven't come out swinging in support of the House bill and its amendments. Senators know they need at least six Democratic votes to overcome a filibuster.

Still, the House's base bill gives lawmakers a bicameral, bipartisan starting point. Rep. David Price, the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member, said the parties and chambers came together to produce a "good bill." It's one that's also won the support of the White House.

On a call with reporters Wednesday, Gil Kerlikowske, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said providing DHS with a fiscal 2015 budget allows the department to make long-range plans, in addition to securing funds for training and equipment.

"I cannot stress to you enough how important it is to have a stable, secure, and final one-year budget," he said.

Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other for playing politics with an important function of the government. In the floor debate Wednesday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said an assault on immigration was holding homeland security "hostage."

Before the Wednesday vote, Boehner took to the floor defending the House's plan to tackle Obama's immigration plan—an aggressive action that could leave the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, and the White House negotiating into next month as the clock on funding quickly winds down.

"Today I rise and the House rises to support and defend our Constitution," Boehner said. "We do not take this action lightly, but there is simply no alternative. It's not a dispute between parties or even branches of government. This executive overreach is an affront to the rule of law and the Constitution itself."