If it weren’t for all this snow falling in the nation’s capital, you’d probably catch a glimpse of that perfect storm brewing over President Barack Obama’s now-famous executive order on immigration reform.
It has, once again, emerged as a point of contention on the salted streets between Capitol Hill and the White House, with the forecast telling us that this one shows no signs of letting up. Department of Homeland Security employees are biting their nails to the nub in anticipation of another budget-related shutdown; undocumented immigrants fret over the specter of deportations; and the sister who could become the nation’s first black female attorney general is suddenly in a state of confirmation limbo.
On the last point, Republicans have managed to cook up a nasty Black History Month calculus wherein they could successfully sabotage Obama’s nomination of Loretta Lynch to become the first black woman running the Department of Justice—and get away with it—since folks these days seem more interested in Amber Rose and Khloe Kardashian’s Twitter beefs than they are in the possibility of a failed Lynch nomination.
With a Republican-appointed Texas federal judge ruling, predictably, on Monday against Obama’s order, House and Senate Republicans are looking to reclaim their mojo—potentially by challenging Lynch and by forcing a DHS shutdown, knowing that they didn’t pay much of a political price for the shutdown in 2014.
Thus, a proverbial come-to-Jesus moment on immigration seems likely in the last frigid days of February.
And on Feb. 27 we’ll have a better sense of what’s next. As House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) desperately grabs at immigration as his imaginary switch to whip a raucous caucus into line, the GOP-dominated Senate is stalled. Meanwhile, Hill Dems want to sidestep a House-GOP-approved DHS-funding bill loaded with poison pills that all but obliterate the president’s quick-fix immigration reprieve.
To have Homeland Security shut down is a weird twist for Republicans, since they’re usually the ones crying about spilt security milk, lone-wolf terrorists and decapitating Islamic State, or ISIS, militants at the doorstep. But they’ve seized on the idea of cutting off DHS funding as a means of thwarting the president’s immigration-reform efforts, which would be overseen by Homeland Security.
Without funding, the department—with a $61 billion budget (pdf) overseeing critical security functions like the Secret Service, border protection, Transportation Security Administration agents and the Coast Guard—will shut down.
And a day before Homeland Security is expected to shut down, the Senate is scheduled to vote on whether to confirm Lynch as attorney general. Her confirmation vote was recently ditched into a two-week postponement because of Senate-Republican objections made, they say, so that they can “get an indication from her of the independence that she’s going to have from the White House,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told The Hill last week.
That’s senator-ese for “What’s her stance on immigration?”
While it’s a very sudden and rude departure from the fairly smooth reception she received during her confirmation hearings—in which the same Grassley said, “As far as I know, Ms. Lynch has nothing to do with the Department of Justice problems that I just outlined”—it’s not surprising. Of course, he’s not going to say that the GOP is holding Lynch’s nomination hostage over indecision on immigration. But somewhere, the devil lurking in the details wants to know what’s more important to the president: fast-tracking an attorney general replacement for his fatigued friend Eric Holder or keeping his executive order in place.
Which puts Obama in a tight spot. The country needs a new attorney general and a Department of Homeland Security, but also, according to Obama, sweeping immigration reform. Thus, a tough choice emerges for the White House in the next couple of weeks—or at least that’s what Republicans hope.
Pushing a hard line on Lynch’s confirmation vote could mean a government shutdown; but keeping DHS running and letting her nomination fizzle is another demerit on a mixed black legacy that won’t play well with the president’s political base. If his executive order stalls, he risks losing the support of Latino advocates who view immigration as a political jackpot for their vote in 2016. And just in case he hedges his bets on all three, conservatives have an offensive legal game plan wired all the way up the legal food chain, as high as the right-leaning Supreme Court.
It could all work out at the last minute. But for now the president’s legislative road ahead is icy, and he’s driving without winter tires.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.