The U.S. homeland security secretary coolly defended President Barack Obama's executive order on immigration Tuesday before a House committee in the face of Republican Party anger that might affect key government funding legislation.
Secretary Jeh Johnson faced a firestorm of questions about the president’s action, which will shield more than 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and grant them work permits if they meet certain conditions.
Johnson told members of the House Homeland Security Committee that the executive order wasn't illegal and wasn't an amnesty but would require those affected to come forward and register.
"The reality is that, given our limited resources, these people are not, and have not been for years, prioritized for removal," he said. "It is time we acknowledge that and encourage them to be held accountable. This is simple common sense.”
Republicans on the panel said the president was destroying the trust of Congress and the American people by taking unilateral action to allow the parents of American citizen children to stay in the country and to get work permits.
Johnson, however, blamed House Republicans for not passing an immigration reform bill, as the Senate did in 2013.
“I would like to work with Congress on passing a bill," he said. "The president has said that would be his preference. The problem is we have no partner in Congress.”
That drew a spirited response from Representative Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican. “I think Congress can pass a bill, when the American people start regaining trust in the administration to actually do their job and enforce the laws that are already on the books," he said, slamming his fist on the table.
Republican Representative Michael McCaul of Texas called Obama's executive action an "end run around Congress" that would only encourage more undocumented immigrants to try to enter the United States.
"If we don't think that message is making its way back to Mexico and Central America, we are simply fooling ourselves. We will see a wave of illegal immigration because of the president's actions," he said.
McCaul said that several times the president had questioned his own legal authority to change the immigration rules, only to change course after last month's sweeping Republican gains in congressional elections.
Obama said he took the action because the House had balked at considering the comprehensive immigration legislation approved by the Senate.
House Republicans met Tuesday to discuss how to counter the president’s action. Speaker John Boehner said after the meeting that a number of responses to what he called "a serious breach of our Constitution" were being considered. "We have not made decisions on how we are going to proceed, but we are going to proceed.”
With less than two weeks until a planned holiday recess, both the House and the Senate need to pass government spending bills by December 11 to avoid another shutdown like the one that happened in 2013.
Some congressional aides say the House may vote as early as this week on a symbolic measure saying the president cannot defer deportations, which is not likely to be taken up in the Senate. This would allow some Republican members to vent their frustration over immigration, while at the same time passing the spending bill to avoid another costly government shutdown.