BOCA RATON, Fla. — The nation's Republican governors on Wednesday lashed out at President Barack Obama's plans to unilaterally protect millions of immigrants from deportation, but clashed over whether their congressional colleagues should threaten a government shutdown in response.
The issue dominated the first full day of the Republican Governors Association annual meeting, where a half-dozen potential presidential candidates addressed an issue that could weigh heavily in the GOP's wide-open presidential primary.
One of the likely candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, threatened to file a lawsuit to block Obama's executive order, which the president was expected to announce Thursday night.
Perry likened the president's move to sticking "a finger in the eye of the American people" and described a lawsuit as "a very real possibility."
Recent Republican White House candidates — Perry among them — have struggled to navigate the immigration debate while facing overwhelming conservative opposition to an immigration overhaul and Hispanic voters' growing influence in national elections. While united in their opposition to Obama's plans, GOP governors on Wednesday offered little clarity on what the party should do instead.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the group's outgoing chairman, blamed Obama for failing to address immigration reform earlier in his presidency, but refused to explain his personal position on the issue. Instead, he urged Congress to avoid a government shutdown to block an executive order on immigration.
"It's incumbent upon everybody in Washington, D.C., to do their jobs. And running the government is their job," Christie said. "All this kind of hysteria about shutdowns to me is just people who can make news."
A few minutes earlier, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal suggested that a government shutdown should be on the table, but put it on Obama's shoulders.
"I don't think the president should shut down the government simply because he wants to break the law," Jindal charged.
The comments came on the first day of the RGA's annual conference, where dozens of governors gathered in a luxury oceanside resort as the group's most ambitious governors jockey for position ahead of the 2016 presidential contest.
While Hillary Rodham Clinton remains the overwhelming Democratic front-runner should she seek the presidency, the prospective Republican field is crowded and without a clear leader. A handful of Senate Republicans may join the 2016 contest, but many donors and party officials would prefer a presidential nominee to emerge from the ranks of the Republican governors, who have executive experience and are not tainted by Congress' low approval ratings.
Governors, governors-elect, senior aides and prominent donors descended upon the Boca Raton Resort & Club on Wednesday. The bright pink complex is a sprawling maze of fountains, manicured gardens, ballrooms and high-end restaurants, complete with its own beach club, marina and golf course.
Like their governors, the GOP's biggest donors are also divided on how the party should navigate the immigration debate. While many raise the economic benefits of an improved immigration system, high-profile Republican donor Foster Friess said that immigration reform is unnecessary so long as the federal government enforces its existing laws.
"This whole issue is basically about a political question rather than what's good for the country," said Friess, who was among the many prominent donors mingling with governors. "Who are these people going to vote for?"
Obama on Thursday will announce steps he will take to shield up to 5 million immigrants illegally in the United States from deportation. The president, in a video released on Facebook, said he would make his announcement from the White House.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker suggested that his party should pursue a lawsuit to block Obama's plans instead of a government shutdown. He described immigration reform as important, but not as important as the economy, taxes, energy and education, and accused Obama of using the issue as a "cynical ploy" to disrupt Republicans from pursuing other agenda items.
"Come out with me on the road and I'll tell you there aren't a whole lot of people talking about immigration reform," Walker said.