Republicans Just Blinked In The Big Immigration Stare-Down With Obama

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, joined by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, right, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Senate Republican Conference chairman, speaks with reporters followi... Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, joined by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, right, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Senate Republican Conference chairman, speaks with reporters following a closed-door policy meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) MORE LESS
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WASHINGTON — Republicans just blinked on immigration.

The months-long standoff over President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration took a major turn late Monday when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) proposed decoupling funding for the Department of Homeland Security from legislative action against Obama on deportations.

The threat of withholding DHS funding to block Obama’s immigration moves has been the centerpiece of the GOP’s political strategy for months. McConnell’s proposal to de-link them is a sign that he’s trying to find a way out of a battle that GOP leaders in both chambers never really wanted, but which has been pushed by hard-liners within the party.

The DHS funding bill that blocks Obama’s initiatives to shield more than 4 million people from deportation has already passed the House, but McConnell has been unable to overcome a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. McConnell brought it to a vote again Monday afternoon, and for the fourth time Senate Democrats successfully filibustered it.

Moments later, McConnell put legislation on the calendar to overturn Obama’s immigration actions in a standalone manner — separate from DHS funding.

“This looks like a cover vote to eventually pass a clean DHS bill,” said a conservative Republican aide on Capitol Hill, who requested anonymity to criticize the party leader.

The new legislation targets Obama’s immigration initiatives in November 2014 to shield mostly undocumented parents of American citizens from the threat of deportation. Unlike the House-passed bill, it does not target Obama’s 2012 program to protect young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, the so-called DREAMers.

McConnell said the bill gives Congress “another option we can turn to” for the purpose of funding DHS if Democrats don’t let up in their filibusters.

McConnell’s move is aimed at winning over centrist Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Claire McCaskill (MO), who oppose Obama’s 2014 executive actions but want to separate them from DHS funding. Manchin recently told TPM he would vote to overturn Obama’s immigration initiatives as a standalone bill but not as part of DHS funding legislation. The White House has promised to veto legislation that rolls back Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

Still, the path forward for Republicans to ward off a DHS shutdown, set to occur on Friday, is murky. Even if Senate Republicans manage to deal with the immigration bill and pass a “clean” DHS bill by then, it’s unclear House Republicans will follow suit. Given the Friday shutdown deadline, it is plausible that Congress will look to a stopgap measure to buy time.

But McConnell’s latest move is the first one by a Republican leader that suggests a way to wind down the battle over immigration, which has animated conservatives for months. The Democratic filibusters and Obama’s veto threats leave Republicans with no good options to confront him.

Meanwhile, a federal judge’s recent move to temporarily halt Obama’s immigration steps gives Republicans some fodder to argue that the fight will continue — albeit in court and not in Congress.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY), the No. 3 Senate Democrat, saw McConnell’s move as an step away from conservative demands on immigration, but kept the pressure on him to fund DHS cleanly.

“It’s becoming clear Senator McConnell realizes he must separate himself from the far right, but the bottom line is this proposal doesn’t bring us any closer to actually funding DHS, and Republicans still have no real plan to achieve that goal,” Schumer said in statement. “The order Congress should work in is clear – fund our homeland security, keep DHS open, and then let’s debate immigration.”

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