WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama has the upper hand in the fierce struggle over immigration now taking shape, with a veto pen ready to kill any Republican move to reverse his executive order, Democrats united behind him and GOP congressional leaders desperate to squelch talk of a government shutdown or even impeachment.
With the public favoring changes in the current immigration system, the Republicans' best short-term response appears to be purely rhetorical: that the president is granting amnesty to millions, and exceeding his constitutional authority in the process. Beyond that, their hopes of reversing his policies appear to be either a years-long lawsuit or the 2016 presidential election.
Neither of those is likely to satisfy the tea party adherents in Congress — or the Republican presidential contenders vying for support among party activists who will play an outsized role in early primaries and caucuses just over a year away.
"We alone, I say it openly, we the Senate are waiting in our duty to stop this lawless administration and its unconstitutional amnesty," said one of them, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. In remarks on the Senate floor, according to his office, he was channeling Cicero, the ancient Roman orator.
In a portion of the oration that Cruz did not mention, Cicero referred to a Roman Senate decree calling for a conspirator against the Roman republic "to be put to death this instant."
More than 2,000 years later, impeachment in the House and a trial in the Senate stand as the sole established remedy against high crimes and misdemeanors by any president.
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate leader Mitch McConnell want none of that. Nor are they interested in provoking a government shutdown as a way to block spending needed to carry out Obama's order, viewing that as a poor way to embark on a new era of Republican control of Congress.
"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," said McConnell, who will become majority leader when his party assumes control of the Senate in January.
Led by Boehner, House Republicans on Friday filed a lawsuit accusing Obama of abusing his authority in the implementation of the health care law. Officials say the immigration executive order could be added, but it is unclear how long a final judgment might take or who will be sitting in the Oval Office when it does.
In the interim, Democrats interrupted their squabbling over dispiriting midterm election losses. "The last two weeks haven't been great weeks for us," said New York Rep. Joe Crowley. "The president is about to change that."
The political debate is well underway, although the two parties seem to be appealing to different segments of the electorate. Polls show that the country as a whole and especially Hispanics favor allowing immigrants to remain in the country and work even if here illegally. Conservatives tend to prefer deportation.
"The critics are going to call it amnesty," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., predicted correctly on Thursday in advance of Obama's speech. "But as Sen. Rubio has reminded us, doing nothing — leaving the current system in place — is amnesty."
That was a reference to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential GOP presidential contender who was a leader in passing a bipartisan immigration bill that cleared the Senate, 68-32, in 2013. The measure included a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.
Obama's order didn't go that far. It calls for suspending the threat of deportation for millions, but without the promise of a green card that bestows permanent legal status, much less citizenship.
Republicans also argue that Obama is forfeiting any chance of being able to work with Congress to achieve immigration reform.
Democrats counter that it's been about 17 months since the Senate passed the bipartisan bill.
Since then, opponents in the House have pressured Boehner successfully not to allow it to come to a vote. They also extracted a promise from him not to allow compromise negotiations with the Senate on any other measure that might ease current restrictions on immigrants.
In the hours before Obama acted, Republicans forecast bad outcomes.
"This is ... a major boon to the cartels and other gangs who control Mexico's smuggling networks. And it will almost certainly lead to thousands of people who've committed crimes in this country gaining legal status," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., envisioned a different outcome when asked if a future Republican president might reverse Obama's actions, potentially subjecting millions who step forward now to get work permits to being deported in the future.
"I wish that person luck," Reid said.