Congressional Republicans are right to try to stop President Obama's November 2014 executive action suspending enforcement of immigration laws for millions of illegal aliens.
The House has passed a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill prohibiting DHS from spending money to carry out Mr. Obama’s unconstitutional directive when the department’s current funding runs out Feb. 27.
Now 60 senators—including at least six Democrats—must vote to invoke cloture and take up the bill. Some Senate Democrats have expressed concern about Mr. Obama’s action. After all, the president said at least 22 times he could not act without Congress passing a law. But last week not a single Senate Democrat supported taking it up.
The reason is that the House bill unwisely provides cover for Democratic senators skeptical about Mr. Obama’s action. Some House members insisted on adding riders to the appropriations bill to prohibit spending on other immigration-related decisions the president and the DHS made in 2011 and 2012. And some of these riders involve the department’s legitimate statutory authority to prioritize enforcement efforts. Democrats can say they’re concerned about the 2014 decision, but not these earlier ones.
Of course, there was no chance even a narrow rider aimed at undoing Mr. Obama’s executive order would become law after he promised to veto it. Overturning that would require 67 senators—including at least 13 Democrats—and 290 House Members, including at least 45 Democrats.
If no appropriation bill becomes law, Mr. Obama will blame Republicans for refusing to fund homeland security, calling it irresponsible during a time of heightened terrorist threats. The media will amplify his criticism. Already, a Feb. 12-15 CNN/ORC poll found 53% would blame congressional Republicans for a shutdown while only 30% would blame Mr. Obama. Those numbers would only get worse for the GOP if the DHS shuts down.
Though Senate Democrats are blocking the measure, its failure to move will increase tensions between House and Senate Republicans. Already, some House Republicans are demanding the Senate scrap its 60-vote requirement to take up bills, a rule that has been in place for nearly a century.
Shutdown advocates will claim anyone who disagrees with them supports the president’s action. This charge is false, as it was during the October 2013 government-wide shutdown over defunding ObamaCare. The argument has always been about the prudence of tactics, not about goals, which nearly every Republican agrees on.
In the next few weeks, some members of the House shutdown caucus may try forcing a no-confidence vote on Speaker John Boehner. Ironically, they would be using the refusal of Senate Democrats to back a House GOP bill to demand House Republicans replace their leader.
A DHS shutdown would also damage Republican chances to win the White House in 2016. We’ve seen this movie. After the 2012 election, Gallup found 43% of Americans viewed the GOP favorably while 50% did not. After the October 2013 government shutdown, 32% were favorable toward the GOP while 61% were not. It took hard work and lucky breaks for Republicans to get those numbers back to 42% favorable, 52% unfavorable by the 2014 election.
Republicans did well in the 2014 midterms despite the 2013 shutdown, not because of it. Not a single new Republican senator campaigned on having voted for or supported it.
The good news for Republicans is that Monday’s preliminary injunction by federal district Judge Andrew Hanen, which stopped implementation of Mr. Obama’s November immigration executive order, gives the GOP an opportunity to extract itself. Republicans can now offer a rider that refuses funds for executing Mr. Obama’s directive that is under court challenge, dropping the other add-ons the shutdown caucus insisted on. This would remove the excuse of Senate Democrats skeptical of Mr. Obama’s directive. Either they act on their concerns or go on record supporting the president’s unconstitutional action.
For Republicans, this would be a chance to make their point on an issue where voters agree the president overstepped his authority. It would also give momentum to the legal challenge by indicating there is bipartisan support for reversing it.
The GOP’s ability to block Mr. Obama’s overreach now depends on the success of the court challenge mounted by 26 state attorneys general. And if they fail, on putting a Republican in the Oval Office. What Republicans know is that shutting down the Department of Homeland Security helps neither cause.
A version of this article appeared February 19, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline A GOP Lifeline On Immigration—If They’ll Take It and online at WSJ.com.