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A do-nothing Congress? We ain't seen nothing yet


Well, for anybody who loves a good fight, the next couple of years ought to be just splendid.

Members of Congress will have plenty on their plates when they start their new session in January: government funding, tax policy, trade policy, economic growth, inequality, health care costs, Russia, China, Iran, Isis, infrastructure, education, immigration, climate change....

With the midterm elections behind us, Congress might want to settle down and get things done. But no. We're still five weeks away from the Republican ascension, and the damage is already piling up.

Last Friday – the day after President Obama's announcement on immigration – Republicans in the House filed suit over two actions the president took related to the Affordable Care Act.

The same day, House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans would try to prevent Obama's immigration reforms from taking place. Some House Republicans were talking about shutting down the government again.

Mitch McConnell, who will be the top dog in the Senate come January, said Republicans are "considering a variety of options" to fight the president's immigration plan. "But make no mistake," he said. "When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act."

Action at last! But it looks like the action will be the kind we've seen from Republicans with the Affordable Care Act: all obstruction.

And here's the thing: Republicans in Congress could have acted on immigration before. In fact, some of them did. In June 2013, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate joined together and passed an immigration bill that Politico called "the most monumental overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in a generation."

But the Republican-dominated House killed the chances for reform. Boehner wouldn't let a bill come up for a vote.

Politico has now fleshed out the story behind Obama's decision to act last week. After Obama was re-elected in 2012, Republicans "flirted with – and invariably backed away from – proposals for comprehensive immigration reform," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown, Seung Min Kim, and Anna Palmer write. The reason: the sharp division in Republicans' own ranks. Conservatives wanted no part of letting undocumented immigrants stay in the country.

This year, House Republicans came close to passing an immigration bill, according to the Politico report. Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart crafted a compromise bill, lobbied hard for it, and seemed to get enough Republican and Democratic support that it could pass as a bipartisan bill, the Politico report says.

Diaz-Balart kept the White House informed on what he was doing. "Obama held out hope that Diaz-Balart might succeed where so many others had failed," says the Politico report, "agreeing to delay the release of a narrow batch of executive actions on immigration to avoid antagonizing conservatives at a delicate moment in Diaz-Balart's negotiations."

But then in early June, Eric Cantor, "who had gingerly supported certain immigration reforms," lost his seat in the Virginia Republican primary, with immigration a key issue, says Politico.

That was the end of that. And later that month, Boehner "informed Obama that not only would his Republican members decline to address immigration, they planned to sue the president, as well, for exceeding his authority in a variety of administration actions taken in the absence of congressional approval."

In a National Journal article posted shortly before Obama's address last week, Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, had this observation about federal immigration reform efforts:

"The reality is that there were ample opportunities over the past four years for the House of Representatives to take a constructive step on immigration, especially after the big, super-majority vote in the Senate on a comprehensive bill. It declined to do so. Meanwhile, the favorite GOP talking point on the subject has been that Democrats had majorities in both chambers in 2009 and 2010 and failed to act. Which neatly ignores another reality: During that time, the House passed handily the Dream Act, a major step toward broader immigration reform. There was majority support in the Senate. Guess what? Mitch McConnell led a filibuster that killed the Dream."

Ornstein said he understood Obama's "need to act on immigration," and said he hoped that the president would "delay its effective date until the end of January or mid-February, giving the House one last chance to do something on the issue."

But Ornstein worried that both House and Senate Republicans will respond to Obama's announcement on immigration by blocking action on unrelated issues – government funding and administrative appointments included.

We should all be worried.

Like a lot of people, I like what Obama has done on immigration. The goal is to make US immigration efforts both more humane and more effective. But I'm conflicted about the executive action move. I worry about precedents. Obama's Republican critics are right: if liberals think this is OK for this president, we ought to think about what a conservative Republican president might do.

But we also should be concerned when the members of one party in Congress refuse to compromise and try to hold up the operations of government. Given the history of the past four years, the Republicans seem more interested in opposing anything Barack Obama proposes than in meeting the needs of the country.

It's not going to be a good two years.

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