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Column: The Gathering Political Storm Over Immigration

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VIDEO: Even as the political dust continues to settle from midterm elections, both Democrats and Republicans are looking ahead to campaign 2016. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

The dust has barely settled from the 2014 midterm elections, but it’s clear that the next great political battle is already upon us—immigration reform.

President Barack Obama is expected to take executive action soon to protect millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally from being deported. That would please Hispanic political activists, but also set the stage for a major confrontation between the president and newly empowered Republicans in Congress.

In light of sweeping Republican victories on November 4 that won a Senate majority and expanded their majority in the House of Representatives, you might have expected a more humble response from the Obama White House. Instead it appears that the president is about to “double-down” on the immigration issue and follow through on his threat to take executive action in light of growing Republican opposition in Congress to taking up comprehensive reform.

After initially sounding a note of hopeful bipartisanship in the wake of the election results, incoming Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he and his fellow Republicans were concerned with the post-election stance of the Obama White House.

“I had maybe naively hoped the president would look at the results of the election and decide to come to the political center and so some business with us,” McConnell said. “I still hope he does at some point but the early signs are not good.”

Signs of Republican Strains

The immigration gambit is also exposing cracks within Republican ranks between mainstream congressional leaders who now want to demonstrate that their party can govern in a responsible way and Tea Party and other conservative adherents that may be willing to shut down the federal government in a bid to prevent Obama from taking unilateral action.

Immediately after the midterm election, both Sen. McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner were quick to rule out any government shutdowns in the weeks ahead. But the president’s expected action on immigration has fired up the Republican base, especially in the House, to the point that Boehner now says that “all options are on the table.” Boehner told reporters that House Republicans will “fight the president tooth and nail if he continues down this path.”

Some conservatives raised the idea of trying to block the presidential action on immigration by linking it to upcoming congressional action on the budget. Congress needs to act by December to keep the government running and a confrontation over immigration raises the possibility that some Tea Party activists and other conservatives will use the issue to push for a government shutdown. Republicans leaders were hoping to enact a budget resolution that would have kept the government funded at current levels through next September. But Tea Party activists may now demand a shorter term funding bill as part of an effort to fight the president on immigration.

Republican congressional leaders also said after the election that impeaching the president was off the table, a response to a small group of House conservatives who have raised the possibility in the past. If things really get bad over the next few weeks, one has to wonder if some conservatives might be tempted to raise the issue anew under the theory that unilateral action by the president would be seen by many of them as a violation of the Constitution, something the Obama White House would vehemently push back on.

Democratic Soul-Searching

Democrats are also going through their own post-election soul-searching and many are concerned about what they see. Republicans effectively cast the midterm election as a referendum on President Obama and his policies. They also had some success in targeting Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. Reid was re-elected leader by Senate Democrats but there were some notable defections, especially by Democrats in Republican-leaning states who grew tired of trying to defend the president and his policies.

House Democrats have been in the minority for the past four years and are well aware of their limitations in trying to have a voice in legislation. The rules of the Senate give the minority a greater say than in the House, but now Senate Democrats will have to adjust to their new status as Republicans prepare to take the majority in January. That could set the stage for more presidential vetoes, since the Democratic Senate blocked numerous bills from House Republicans before they could reach the president’s desk during his first six years in office.

Looking to 2016

How the immigration struggle plays out in the coming weeks could have a major impact on the early battle lines for the 2016 presidential race. Unilateral presidential action would no doubt please immigration activists and give Hispanic voters a reason to come out in force for Democratic candidates two years from now, something they did not do in this year’s midterm elections. It could also be a boon to whichever Democrat tries to succeed Obama in the presidency, beginning with the current favorite for the party nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While the action might please many Democrats, it is likely to infuriate congressional Republicans fresh off their midterm victories. In the short term, this could embolden conservative elements to demand that Republican congressional leaders do more to stand up to the president, increasing the chances of stalemate on a host of issues including the budget, energy, reducing greenhouse gases and tax reform.

Republicans, like pollster Whit Ayres, see their gains in this year’s midterm elections as a stepping stone to recapturing the White House two years from now.

“We had better candidates and we had candidates who could unite the Republican coalition and of course that is what it is going to take in 2016,” he said. “The Republican Party is one candidate and one election away from resurrection at the presidential level.”

But looking ahead to the presidential contest in 2016, Republicans are also aware of their problems in winning over Hispanic voters. They did marginally better in drawing their support in the midterms this year, but an angry Republican reaction to whatever the president does on immigration also carries serious political risks of alienating a growing bloc of voters, not only for 2016, but well into the future as well.

Whit Ayres was thrilled with his party’s gains in this year’s midterms but also sounded a cautionary note about the future and the need to draw Hispanic support away from Democrats.

“We got one-third of the Hispanic vote. We’ve got to do better with Hispanics, with Asians,” he said. “We’ve seen that coming. It is not arguable and it is simply the challenge that we have to meet successfully if we will ever elect another president.”

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.