By Thomas F. Schaller
John Boehner and the House Republicans caved--again.
After threatening to hold the Department of Homeland Security budget hostage to demands that President Obama reverse his executive actions preventing the deportation of certain undocumented immigrants, Boehner and House Republicans eventually relented, as most political observers expected all along they would. This has become a familiar pattern. During the Obama era so far, there have already been two debt ceiling crises, one government shutdown and, now, the recent standoff between the president and Congress over the DHS budget and immigration.
On one level, one sympathizes with Speaker Boehner. His perch atop the House leadership is perilous. He must accommodate a sizeable contingent of tea party-identified and other conservatives who in January formed the "Freedom Caucus." Some members have their eyes on his gavel. With the president and a bipartisan group of senators already poised to decouple immigration policy from Homeland Security spending, Boehner and the House GOP became increasingly isolated as last weekend's funding reauthorization deadline approached.
The conventional thinking is that Republican resistance, especially by Boehner's House caucus, is largely a signal to conservative voters--who are pivotal in Republican primary contests--that their representatives are fighting the good fiscal austerity fight in Washington. Once that message is sent, they can relent and claim to have tried everything within their power to resist. But the earlier debt ceiling and budget showdowns differ from the latest DHS-immigration episode in two important ways.
First, given that immigration reform would actually provide net economic benefits for the American economy, it's hard to argue that Republican opposition to the president's actions was based on fiscal principals related to deficits and debt in the way that, say, opposition to spending for some federal entitlement program might be. Immigration policy has fiscal impacts, of course. But the point is that whatever one thinks about politicians tinkering with the full faith and credit of the United States, a debt ceiling increase protest as a public stand against rising federal debt at least makes political sense. Linking immigration policy to homeland security spending is much more of a stretch and thereby reinforces the image of the GOP as a party willing to adopt extreme measures to fight immigration reform. As Latino Decisions co-founder Matt Barreto said this week, "Republicans will not get themselves out of the 'self-deport era' by positioning themselves as wanting to deport the parents of U.S. citizen children."
Second, in the post-September 11 era the leveraging of Homeland Security funding for political purposes is a new and very risky tactic. As Ryan Lizza explained in a 2013 New Yorker piece, it's true that many House Republicans elected in 2006 or later view the fiscal crisis of 2008-09, rather than the 2001 terrorist attacks, as their political generation's defining moment. But tampering with Homeland Security spending in an era when the public remains very sensitized to, and very supportive of, the Americans who daily work to protect the country against domestic and foreign threats is high-stakes politics. Although higher public trust in Republicans on defense and security issues gives the party some leeway, using DHS funding as a political bargaining chip can't help the GOP's brand.
In short, Boehner's House GOP caucus is not doing the party any favors--or, to be clear, at least not the party's presidential wing. After the 2013 government shutdown, which ended up costing the government more money than it saved, GOP favorability plunged. But that didn't prevent Republicans from adding a Senate majority to the House majority they recaptured following two solid years of resistance politics.
But the presidential race looms. On the other side of the Capitol, Senators Mitch McConnell and John McCain seem to understand this. From the outset of the 114th Congress, they made clear that their primary task these next two years is to not do anything that might imperil the election chances of their party's 2016 presidential nominee. Their efforts may have already been laid to waste by their House GOP colleagues. "The Republican blockade against reform is having a searing impact on our community," National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguia said. "And these actions will have political consequences. Candidates are already testing the waters for the next presidential campaign. Soon they will be asking for our vote--and with good reason."
As for Latino voters, the DHS-immigration episode sends a mixed message.
On the one hand, the fact that both parties must consider the electoral implications of their decisions in terms of the Latino vote testifies to Latinos' growing political influence. As repeated polling by Latino Decisions has shown, support for comprehensive immigration reform is a key precondition for Latinos to support parties and politicians.
On the other hand, it is rather disconcerting that immigration and the millions of lives affected by federal immigration policy can be used as a political ploy by politicians in service to larger political agendas. For Latinos, the major takeaway from the DHS-immigration showdown is that they are now a political force vital enough that their key issue has become part of a broader pattern of polarized, tug-of-war politics in Washington.
Thomas F. Schaller is D.C.-based political director for Latino Decisions and a professor of political science at UMBC. He is the author of The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House (Yale 2015).