Our story so far: Last year President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration. Conservatives went ballistic and threatened to refuse to pass a budget—thus shutting down the government—unless the budget defunded the immigration plan. They eventually gave in on that, but only because they were promised a second bite at the apple. The resulting compromise funded every department except the Department of Homeland Security, which was given only short-term funding. That now has to be reauthorized, and this time around conservatives are threatening to refuse to pass a DHS budget—thus shutting down the department—unless it defunds the immigration plan.
But Democrats have been unified in refusing to approve a budget that defunds the immigration plan, and now Republicans are stuck. Shutting down DHS would be a PR disaster, and they haven't really managed to get the public riled up about Obama's immigration plan. Why not? Dave Weigel reports that the problem is simple. Their hearts aren't really in it:
"Republicans have not done a particularly effective job of communicating what they want here," said Ira Mehlman, FAIR's national media director. "They let the president get out there first and explain his position with public events. I don’t understand why they haven’t turned the tables on the president and capitalized. It is baffling."
And it's less than conservatives did in a comparable standoff, the summer 2013 fight over whether or not to fund the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Initially, Republican leaders in the House had wanted to split the defunding from the must-pass appropriations bill. They were denied the votes for that from the GOP conference. At the same time, the conservative Heritage Action was hosting town halls around the country, putting pressure on Republicans to kill the ACA. Some members of the Senate, most famously Texas Senator Ted Cruz, joined them.
There have been no comparable Heritage Action rallies in the weekends or recesses of 2015. "This fight was set up by leadership when they opted for the cromnibus strategy," explained Heritage Action president Michael Needham in an email, "and it is a fight nearly every Republican promised their constituents both on the campaign trail and then again in December. In other words, it has been set up for months on the ground they chose."
Heritage Action will key-vote the DHS bill, knuckle-rapping the Republicans who don't go all the way to de-fund the executive orders. But it has not organized opposition to a "clean bill." Neither, really, has [Ted] Cruz. He spent very little of last week's recess talking about the coming DHS fight.
So what happens next? Perhaps Republicans allow DHS to be shut down for a symbolic few days and then allow a vote on a clean funding bill that will pass the House with a few Republican votes and a lot of Democratic votes. Because basically most of them don't really care.
As well they shouldn't. The truth is that they shot themselves in the foot from the very start by going ballistic over Obama's actions. The thing is, Obama didn't really do all that much. Before he acted, we had 11 million undocumented immigrants who weren't going to be deported. Afterward, we had 11 million undocumented immigrants who weren't going to be deported—but would be given temporary documentation that officially protected them from the deportation that wasn't going to happen anyway. Conservatives could have just grumbled and let it go, but instead they gave Obama a huge win by making it seem as if his actions were a major victory in the immigration wars. It's been a boon for both Obama and the Democratic Party, and huge headache for the Republican Party.
It's too late now to back away from the relentless claims that Obama has acted like a lawless, Constitution-shredding tyrant over immigration, but Republicans have to figure out something. The public might or might not approve of how Obama implemented his reforms, but they're fine with the reforms themselves. Aside from a few tea party dead enders, there's just no widespread outrage to tap into.
So instead of spending their first few months in control of Congress doing something, Republicans are fighting dumb battles that Obama has suckered them into. The faster they get out from under that rock, the better off they'll be.