WASHINGTON (AP) — United against President Barack Obama but uncertain how to stop him, outraged Republicans struggled for a response on immigration Friday that would check the president without veering into talk of impeachment or a government shutdown. Their remedy was far from clear.
Republicans weighed filing a lawsuit. Or trying to block funding for Obama's move. Or advancing immigration measures of their own. But the party was divided, and Obama's veto pen seemed to give him the upper hand.
And so, less than three weeks removed from midterm elections where they retook the Senate and amassed a historic majority in the House, Republicans found themselves stymied by a lame duck president whose unilateral move to curb deportations for millions left previously dispirited Democrats cheering and the GOP with no obvious response.
"We're working with our members, looking at the options that are available to us, but I will say to you: The House will, in fact, act," House Speaker John Boehner declared at a news conference the day after Obama unveiled his landmark policy. Obama announced he was extending deportation protections and a chance for work permits to as many as 5 million immigrants now in the country illegally. He also will make more business visas available and reorder law enforcement priorities to focus more squarely on criminals for deportation.
"In the days ahead the people's house will rise to this challenge" said Boehner at the Capitol. "We will not stand idle as the president undermines the rule of law in our country and places lives at risk. ... He's damaging the presidency itself."
But Republicans acknowledged they were at a disadvantage given that any legislative solution they settled on would be subject to a veto by Obama that they could not likely overturn.
And party leaders were determined to steer clear of a repeat just a year after Congress' tea party contingent forced a politically damaging partial government shutdown over Obama's health care law. But that was the scenario posed by a push among conservatives to use must-pass spending legislation to stop the president.
The situation posed a major challenge to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will take over as majority leader once the new Congress convenes in January. As Republicans headed home to their districts Friday for a weeklong Thanksgiving break where they anticipated getting an earful from constituents, Obama drew enthusiastic applause at a rally in Las Vegas where he began promoting his plans to the nation.
"Our immigration system has been broken for a very long time and everybody knows it," the president said. "We can't afford it anymore."
Lawmakers will return to Washington the first week of December and aim for a clearer direction. Leaders are casting about for a way to satisfy the most conservative lawmakers without overreacting and alienating Hispanic and moderate voters who will be critical for the 2016 election. Republicans will be defending their newfound congressional majorities then and aiming for the White House.
"What did the president do? He pulled the pin on the grenade two weeks after the election," said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, a close Boehner ally. "I don't think anybody knows or can predict what happens and the carnage that this creates quite frankly for the legislative process."
A handful of the most conservative House members including Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama and Steve King of Iowa have said impeachment should be on the table as a last resort. But Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., one of the fiercest opponents of Obama's actions, tried to rule that out Friday, telling the conservative Heritage Foundation, "We are not going to impeach or move to impeach." Sessions did insist that Congress could use its power over spending to affect the immigration initiative, saying: "There are powers Congress has, and ought to use."
The party leaders' job was complicated by the presence in the Senate of a handful of Republican presidential hopefuls who might want an opportunity to confront Obama.
One of those, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, argued that the Senate should refuse to confirm any of Obama's legislative or judicial nominations except for vital national security positions.
Republicans were divided over whether the spending process was a viable route to block Obama. The current government funding measure expires Dec. 11 and Congress must pass a new one. If the measure is loaded with language to block Obama, that could provoke a shutdown if he vetoes it.
Party leaders favor passing a full-year funding bill and avoiding such a fight, but conservatives are pushing for a shorter term measure, even if it doesn't have language on immigration, to maintain leverage over Obama once the new Congress convenes.
Another option was advancing immigration legislation, something the GOP-controlled House has failed to do for more than a year after the Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan immigration bill including a path to citizenship — a bill Obama challenged the House Republicans to vote on. Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he anticipated that a border security bill written by his committee might move early next year. McCaul's panel and the House Judiciary Committee announced they would hold hearings on Obama's move in early December.
Meanwhile, House Republicans filed a long-awaited lawsuit over Obama's health law Friday, and some favored pursuing the same route over immigration.
On one point Republicans were united: Obama must be stopped.
"Either the president is going to be the emperor, or House Republicans coupled with Senate Republicans and the American people are going to have to win a debate that's going to be played out in the public," said King. "I think we win that debate, but even if I didn't think so I'm bound by the Constitution to fight the fight."