WASHINGTON -- The lame-duck Congress cued up its freak-out over President Barack Obama's pending immigration announcement Thursday, with Democrats calling it bold and courageous and Republicans deeming at an assault on democracy.
Obama's executive action is expected to apply to as many as 5 million people. Four million undocumented immigrants could receive relief from deportation proceedings as parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Another 1 million could receive relief based on their longstanding ties to the U.S. and the elimination of the current age cap for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
Although Obama is expected to detail his plans in a speech to the nation Thursday night, Congress is heading out of town to take the Thanksgiving week off -- so lawmakers reacted early to be sure to get their points in.
The first official statement of the day came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will take over as the majority leader in January. McConnell argued in a Senate floor speech that if Obama makes good on his plans, the president will be contradicting himself and ignoring the will of the people.
"If the president truly follows through on this attempt to impose his will unilaterally, he will have issued a rebuke to his own stated view of democracy," said McConnell, adding that Obama has said before that the White House lacks the legal authority to do more on immigration than he has already done.
"As just one example, President Obama said last year that executive action was 'not an option' because he 'would be ignoring the law.' 'There is a path to get this done,' he said, 'and that is through Congress,'" said McConnell before offering a veiled threat to the White House.
"If President Obama acts in defiance of the people and imposes his will on the country, Congress will act," McConnell said. "We're considering a variety of options. But make no mistake: When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act."
Some members of the Republican Party have suggested that action could include holding funds hostage, potentially shutting down the government. McConnell has insisted the GOP will not do that, however.
One of the harshest immigration critics in the House, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), declared in his own floor speech that Obama would be tearing out the part of the Constitution that gives Congress its authority. He said it was no wonder that immigrants flock to America with Obama in the White House.
"They're leaving a lawless land to bring lawlessness to this land where we have a lawless president," King said.
One of his colleagues, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), reportedly said earlier that Obama's steps could warrant impeachment or even prison time. "At some point, you have to evaluate whether the president's conduct aids or abets, encourages, or entices foreigners to unlawfully cross into the United States of America," Slate reported Brooks saying. "That has a five-year in-jail penalty associated with it."
On Thursday, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) accused Obama of wanting to "start a fight."
"I hope the president's not willing to shut down the government. I know the president wants to shut down the government; I know that's his goal. I don't think we're going to go there on the legislative side," Kingston said, suggesting that Obama wanted to bait the GOP into an ill-advised showdown.
Democrats responded in their own news conferences on both sides of the Capitol.
"This is pretty exciting. It's bold, it's courageous. It's as good as it can be under the law," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
She and other Democratic leaders accused the GOP of hypocrisy, noting that the Senate did pass a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013. While House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) repeatedly said that his party would come up with its own "principles" for reform and would pass piecemeal House legislation to deal with specific immigration problems, it never happened.
"It's over 500 days since the Senate passed a bill, and still no action by the House Republicans on anything -- some small bill, some bigger bill -- nothing," Pelosi said.
Senate Democrats suggested enacting the Senate bill would be one way Republicans could make good on McConnell's promise to act.
"When they look on the table at all of their options, there's one more option that would stop the president dead in his tracks while actually improving, not hurting, our economy: passing the bipartisan Senate immigration bill," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "Rather than choosing to throw a temper tantrum and shut down the government, hurting millions of middle-class families, Republicans should channel their anger in a productive fashion to pass the bipartisan bill now."
Schumer argued that the Senate bill offers much of what Republicans want to secure the border first, before dealing with undocumented immigrants already in the country. It includes $40 billion for Border Patrol agents every half mile, an extensive fence and even drones that can spot human border-crossers.
Republicans have floated a number of alternative responses to Obama's executive action. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that the GOP "should take him to court." Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the same day that the GOP should block all White House nominees next year.
Some Democrats have said they would prefer that Obama wait on executive action -- or not do it at all -- but none have indicated they will join Republicans in fighting against it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) argued that far from being some shocking event, Obama's moves should be seen as something he has telegraphed since his last State of the Union address, when he said he would act if Congress did not.
"My only surprise is the president waited as long as he has to do some of these things with executive actions," Reid told reporters.
Dana Liebelson contributed reporting.