Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is critical of Obama's immigration policies but says DHS must be funded.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is critical of Obama's immigration policies but says DHS must be funded. Flickr user Gage Skidmore

How Hard Will Senate GOP Fight on Immigration?

Unlike in the House, Senate Republicans seem more concerned with homeland security funding than fighting Obama.

Senate Republicans are willing to use a vital spending bill to fight President Obama on immigration. But not as hard as their House colleagues would like.

The House will vote Wednesday to stop funding for Obama's executive action deferring deportations for 5 million undocumented immigrants as part of a measure to fund the Homeland Security Department. Then it will be the Senate's turn, and some House Republicans are already worried about what that chamber will do.

"You rarely see this kind of unity from our conference on anything," Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona told National Journal"and you're seeing incredible unity on this bill. And it would be tragic for the Senate, who just took over the majority for the first time in a while, with a mandate to do their job and I would hope that they'll do it—and listen."

Even some of the Senate's fiercest critics of Obama's immigration policies, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, are not taking a tone as aggressive as House Republicans when it comes to holding the Homeland Security Department's funding at risk.

"We need to fund DHS. I think that's high ground," Sessions said Tuesday.

The actual funding bill isn't controversial. Negotiations involving Republicans and Democrats in both chambers produced a "good bill," said Democratic Rep. David Price of North Carolina, the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee's ranking member.

But the House amendments to the bill will provide ample opportunity for Republicans to express their discontent over Obama's actions. (Price called the amendment list "the wish list for the far right wing.") They include a proposal to defund Obama's most recent executive action, which deferred deportations for unauthorized parents of children who are U.S. citizens or green-card holders, and one to stop a 2012 program deferring removals of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before the age of 16.

Obama has pledged to veto any bill that includes those provisions.

If those amendments pass in the House—and there's a good chance they will—Senate Republicans will have to respond, weighing whether to risk Homeland Security funding. DHS funding runs out at the end of February, and a shutdown would be a politically difficult position for any lawmaker to defend.

Make no mistake. Senate Republicans are as frustrated with Obama as are their colleagues in the House, but they don't have the luxury of passing wholly partisan legislation and daring the president to veto it. They know they need 60 votes to pass legislation and that amendments to defund the executive actions probably won't reach that threshold. In the end, GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said, "what gets 60 votes, we'll pass and send to the president."

Sessions, for his part, stands firmly with House Republicans who are trying to stop the administration from implementing the deferred-deportation program. He wants the Senate to go on record saying the president's actions are unacceptable. "I think it's exceedingly important that we not fund government actions that we think are unwise and are unlawful," he said.

What Sessions didn't say, echoing the statements of many of his fellow senators, was that it would be acceptable for the DHS budget to be compromised in the fight over Obama's immigration policies. "We'll have to see how it plays out," he said. Several senators deferred questions on immigration by saying they hadn't yet seen the House bill.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, was asked directly whether DHS funding was threatened. "I don't see that happening. Everybody realizes that there are important functions in that department that have to be funded," he said.

A bright spot about the House legislation, Thune added, is that it will give Republicans a chance to publicly protest Obama's actions, even if that's all they do. "It does sort of create an opportunity to discuss the president's unilateral action on immigration, which a lot of people think is unlawful."

Sessions said he would welcome a full-fledged debate about other immigration priorities, such as an entry-exit system recommended by the 9/11 commission that has languished for more than a decade uncompleted. He has prepared a 25-page, detailed memo on immigration policy for the Republicans' two-day retreat in Hershey, Pa., this week.

Other GOP senators also see an opening to change immigration, as long as it's separate from a DHS funding bill. Arizona's Jeff Flake was among several Senate Republicans and Democrats who introduced legislation Tuesday to increase the number of H-1B visas available each year. Flake, who has advocated a comprehensive immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, said Obama's immigration actions have opened the door for a piece-by-piece approach to changing the law.

"Why not move with this? We could move with border fees. We could move [on H-1Bs]," Flake said. But, he added, that conversation should happen separate from the Homeland Security Department budget talks. "Our response [to Obama] shouldn't be on a funding bill. We should pass legislation," he said.

Senate and House Republicans will convene this week for the first bicameral retreat in about a decade, an apt time for the chambers to discuss an endgame strategy on immigration. House Republicans are preparing to defend their aggressive position toward Obama. They don't want to see the Senate walk back from their hard line.

But recent history dictates that the Senate won't be as harsh as some House members would like. In December, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas raised a constitutional point of order against a $1.1 trillion spending package, protesting Obama's actions as unconstitutional. But only 22 senators voted with Cruz, many of whom said the fight should be punted to 2015 when Republicans would hold the majority in both chambers.

That vote was concerning to Rep. Steve King of Iowa, an outspoken foe of illegal immigration who has been critical of GOP leadership. "That worries me," he said. "Giving that as a foundation, we're going to have a lot of conversations between the House and the Senate, and I'm hopeful we'll be able to succeed."

Last year, House Speaker John Boehner said he would fight "tooth and nail" to halt the president's actions. The House GOP spent the beginning of the 114th Congress hammering out a plan to defund those actions while still funding DHS. But after their bill passes, they acknowledge, it may be out of their hands. "Pass what this House thinks is the appropriate thing, and then send it to the Senate," said Oklahoma's Tom Cole, a Boehner ally. "Let's see what they do. And it will probably look somewhat different than what we passed."

Democrats say Republicans will be to blame if DHS shuts down. Republicans say the fault will lie with Obama. And both sides are pointing to the terrorist attack at a satirical newspaper in Paris last week as an example of the dangers of playing politics with the department's funding. During the October 2013 shutdown, about 85 percent of DHS employees continued performing their jobs, although most went unpaid until funding was restored. No one wants to see that happen again.

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)