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Obama seizes leverage from Republicans on immigration

By Justin Sink

(The Hill)-President Obama on Thursday will call on congressional Republicans to approve a “clean” funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security that preserves his executive actions on limiting deportations.

During a visit to the House Democratic retreat, the president is expected to seize on a suggestion from some Republicans that they allow funding for the department to lapse if they are unable to secure concessions.

“The president will join the Democrats in Congress in vehemently opposing that dangerous view and calling for a clean funding bill to ensure we are funding our national security priorities in the face of cybersecurity and security threats abroad,” a White House official said.

Obama is looking to press his political advantage over Republican leaders, who have struggled to come up with a deal that could satisfy conservative lawmakers determined to reverse the president’s immigration orders.

Earlier Wednesday, the White House blasted Republicans for looking to “re-fight an old political battle” and said they are now trapped in a problem of their own making.

“This is a mess they created back in December when they decided to opt for that fight over the immigration reform actions the president took,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. “We believe that was unwise and misguided — that they now have a mess on their hands that they ought to be cleaning up.”

But while the White House is amplifying its call for a clean bill, it isn’t ruling out accepting provisions that would make the legislation more appealing to House Republicans, provided that Obama’s executive actions remain untouched.

“I’ve seen some reports of Republicans that are floating certain riders,” Schultz said. “Our bright line thus far has been we will veto anything that includes a rollback of the president’s executive actions on immigration. Short of that, I’m not going to be in a position to sort of negotiate on those pieces.”

Passing a clean funding bill looks like an impossibility for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) unless he relies fully on House Democrats, so getting the White House to agree to some concessions could provide him important wiggle room.

The clock is ticking. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires on Feb. 27, and Congress is only scheduled to be in session for three weeks next month.

Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said he could not imagine the White House or Democrats standing down. The recent terror attack in Paris has only reinforced the bad politics surrounding a potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), he argued.

“The idea that Republicans want to hamper the Department of Homeland Security at a time like this is ridiculous,” Manley said. “These guys think they have some leverage. They have none as far as I can tell.”

Underscoring Democratic confidence, nearly every Democratic senator signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday saying that they were united against legislation that included riders targeting the president’s executive orders.

Boehner suggested to his caucus earlier this week that he was preparing legislation that would authorize the House to pursue legal action against the administration over the immigration issue.

That could placate some conservatives in the House, but the struggles surrounding a similar lawsuit challenging the president’s delay of the employer mandate in

ObamaCare may also give members pause. Moreover, a lawsuit is unlikely to pay dividends before enrollment begins this spring on the new deferred deportation program.

To try to win over support from his Tea Party wing, Boehner may look to attach other immigration riders that appeal to Republicans but do not overturn the president’s executive actions.

That could mean mining elements of Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul’s (R-Texas) border security bill, which includes $10 billion in new spending for drones, surveillance systems, radar, fencing and other technologies.

But the stand-alone version of that bill struggled to garner conservative support and was sidelined earlier this week because of concerns it didn’t do enough to address illegal

immigrants already in the country.

Republicans could also lift the caps on H-1B visas for high-skill workers in a move that would prove popular in the business community and could garner White House support. Technology companies have lobbied the president to loosen the restrictions so they can bring in more foreign workers.

Still, it’s not clear that Democrats would be willing to accept those riders, and their support will be necessary for the passage of a bill. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said earlier this week he’d oppose efforts to incorporate elements of immigration reform piecemeal into funding bills.

Boehner has shown a willingness to walk away from the table if the available deal couldn’t win over enough of his fragile caucus.

Having grown the Republican majority after the government shutdown and sequestration battles, Boehner may feel that keeping his right wing happy is more important than passing a bill to keep the DHS funded.

Many of the most visible workers at the agency would be required to remain on the job even without pay during a partial shutdown, and there’s a chance the White House could blink first. That’s especially true if the president, riding high in the polls and eager to strike deals on trade and infrastructure, sees the funding bill as an early opportunity for bipartisan compromise.

Still, Democrats feel like they’re holding all the cards — and that the president has learned the lesson from previous funding fights.

“It took them awhile, but it looks to me like they finally realized that you can’t negotiate with hostage takers,” Manley said.

And the White House, for its part, made clear that it would happily pin blame for a shutdown on Republicans.

“They fought very hard for control of power in both chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Schultz said. “And it’s now time for them to step up and govern.”

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