WASHINGTON — Conservative Republicans want to drag must-pass spending bills into their fight with President Barack Obama over his planned executive action on immigration, inviting comparisons to last year's shutdown showdown over the health care law.
In the Senate, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Mike Lee of Utah are among those arguing to use an upcoming must-pass spending bill — either in December or next year — to try to block Obama from taking unilateral action to protect millions of immigrants here illegally from deportation
"Congress appropriates the money," Sessions told reporters Wednesday. "That's a clear constitutional power. If Congress disapproves of the president providing ID cards for people who've been in the country illegally, then it should not appropriate money to fund it."
GOP leaders appear cool to the effort since it could lead to a confrontation with Obama that, if taken too far, could spark another government shutdown. They have given the Appropriations Committee the green light to negotiate a catch-all omnibus spending bill for the budget year that began last month. Any deal with Democrats still in control of the Senate would not include language to block Obama on immigration.
A temporary spending measure expires Dec. 11 and a partial government shutdown would occur if Congress doesn't act by then. Sessions said he'd rather have Congress pass another short-term spending bill so that the new Republican Senate could be in place to tackle the issue.
Rep. Matt Salmon said he had more than 50 GOP lawmakers' signatures on a letter to Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., urging that any spending bill include language saying nothing in it could be used to implement an executive immigration policy.
"This is an opportunity for everybody to come together and speak clearly and forcefully that doing this unconstitutional act would be a mistake, and if you do it, there won't be funding for it," said Salmon, R-Ariz.
But he stopped short of threatening to withhold his vote for any spending bill that omits such language.
"Members are going to decide for themselves whether or not it's something they want to fall on their sword over," Salmon said.
The plans circulated on Capitol Hill as lawmakers returned to Washington a week after midterm elections in which Republicans trounced Democrats and retook the Senate. Obama's determination to move forward with his promised executive action despite the election results has emerged as a major point of conflict between congressional Republicans and the White House. Obama is under intense pressure from Latino advocates to act.
Incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it would be a "big mistake" for Obama to issue an executive order on immigration, but has promised that there will not be a government shutdown.
But any attempt by conservatives to use must-pass spending legislation to block Obama raises the specter of a government shutdown similar to last year when conservatives insisted on trying to use a spending bill to defund the health care law. That was a temporary political blow to the GOP, and Republican leaders have vowed to avoid a repeat, especially when they're determined to show voters they can deliver on a positive agenda.
It's unclear how widespread the support is for trying to use spending legislation that must come to a vote during the lame-duck session to stop Obama from acting. At least a few high-ranking Republicans sounded open to the idea. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who will take over in January as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is looking at the idea, according to spokeswoman Beth Levine.
A spokeswoman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he supports "employing every tool afforded to Congress by the Constitution to stop President Obama's unconstitutional actions."
The sentiment appears to be growing in the wake of defiant comments by Obama in support of executive action, which he argues is necessary because the GOP-led House never acted on a sweeping, bipartisan immigration bill passed last year by the Senate.
The plans could present problems for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and McConnell as they try to navigate a controversy-free lame duck session in which they complete necessary work on a few items, including legislation to fund the government into the new year.
And it's a fight that Democrats might welcome as they look to 2016 presidential elections in which the power of Latino voters is expected to be greater than it was in the midterms, and Republicans instead of Democrats will be playing defense with 24 GOP Senate seats at stake to Democrats' 10.
Obama has not provided details of his plans, but advocates in touch with the White House anticipate he will expand a two-year-old program that temporarily lifted the threat of deportation for more than 500,000 immigrants brought here illegally as kids, while allowing them to get permits to work legally in this country. The program could be extended to potentially millions more people based on criteria including how long people have been in this country and whether they have children or spouses who are U.S. citizens.