A budget shutdown would almost certainly backfire on conservatives

It would play right into Obama's hand

Government shutdown, 2013
(Image credit: (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images))

What is the best way for President Obama to protect the millions of undocumented immigrants who could gain legal status from his planned executive order?

Let staunch conservatives in the House shut down the government.

Though Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), soon to be the majority leader, has come down squarely against the tactic, some colleagues, old and new, see it as the only way to force the president to back down.

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They reason that Republican leaders subscribe to these Beltway nostrums: (a) that the immigration boil will somehow be lanced during the rump Congress; (b) that the Republican brand can somehow accept the grant of legal status to millions without giving any public quarter; and (c) that the leadership is ready to betray the base, yet again. Electoral success has not spoiled these Republicans' sense of grievance, and they're right to worry that a showdown on immigration is in the works. Beltway Republicans, on the other hand, follow the American consensus: they favor amnesty. They just can't admit it.

A spending bill is due on December 11, and that's when the GOP leadership will be called to account. So far, they're floating a few options:

They include offering a separate piece of immigration legislation on the floor aimed at tightening border security and demanding the president enforce existing laws, promising to renew the effort next year when Republicans have larger numbers in both chambers, and passing two separate funding bills — a short-term bill with tight restrictions on immigration enforcement agencies, and another that would fund the rest of the government until the fall.

The president can move money around. He can't create it. Stand-alone bills restricting his ability to move money around might give conservatives a chance to vent their anger. But Obama won't sign legislation that ties both hands behind his back. And Republicans, come January, won't have a veto-proof majority. If conservatives press the issue, then full-stop shutdowns might return as a tactic by default. The GOP leadership wants to avoid the repeat of the past several years at any cost, even if it comes down to a compromise that lets the president get away with a healthy amount of executive ordering on immigration.

If the president acts after the GOP has passed a long-term spending bill that does nothing to gut the president's discretionary powers, they'll lose any power to force him to modify or moderate his order.

If he acts before the Congress, with one branch still in the hands of Democrats, passes a long-term spending bill in December, he'll wind up writing the legislation that will ultimately come to his desk in the next Congress. Republicans will simply take the wording of his executive order and proclaim that no money be used to pay for said specifics. A short term spending bill punts. The brinksmanship remains.

Let's assume that conservative Republicans force a shutdown or a veto threat that would result in a shutdown. Republicans and the president will not find common ground. But the compromise would be obvious from the start: allow the president's executive order to stand but fund it with restrictions and insist that any undocumented immigrant affected receive only temporary legal status until Congress figures it out. Force the president to give up on work permits, but allow the undocumented immigrants to live without fear of deportation for a year. That's when their status would become formally illegal.

This sounds reasonable for conservatives, until you begin to put yourselves in the shoes of Republicans a year from now. The law of political inertia applies; it will be much harder not to renew the legal status of these immigrants. Few will want to appear to be punishing them for Congressional inaction. It will be correspondingly easier for the president to use their status as a way to solve the immigration problem comprehensively.

No wonder Republicans haven't coalesced around a strategy.

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is TheWeek.com's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.