WASHINGTON — Emboldened House Republicans issued a stern but symbolic rebuke to President Barack Obama over immigration Thursday, passing a bill declaring his executive actions to curb deportations "null and void and without legal effect."
Outraged Democrats, immigrant advocates and the White House said the GOP was voting to tear families apart and eject parents.
"Rather than deport students and separate families and make it harder for law enforcement to do its job, I just want the Congress to work with us to pass a commonsense law to fix that broken immigration system," Obama said ahead of the vote.
Even supporters acknowledged that the bill by Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., which says Obama was acting "without any constitutional or statutory basis," was mostly meant to send a message. It stands no chance in the Senate, which remains under Democratic control until January, and faces the veto threat from Obama.
The real fight may lie ahead as conservatives push to use must-pass spending legislation to block Obama.
For now, Republicans insisted they must go on record denouncing what they described on the House floor as an outrageous power grab by Obama.
"The president thinks he can just sit in the Oval Office and make up his own laws. That's not the way our system of government works," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. "This legislation says you can't do that, Mr. President. There is a rule of law."
The vote was 219 to 197, with three Democratic "yes" votes and seven Republican "no" votes. Three Republicans voted "present."
Obama's executive actions last month will extend deportation relief and work permits to some 4 million immigrants here illegally, mostly those who have been in the country more than five years and have children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. He also reordered law enforcement priorities and expanded an existing deportation deferral program for immigrants brought illegally as kids.
Compounding the GOP's anger, Obama's executive action came barely two weeks after Republicans trounced Democrats in the midterm elections, winning control of the Senate and increasing their majorities in the House.
Democratic lawmakers rallied behind the president Thursday, and immigrant advocates warned Republicans would be alienating Latinos heading into 2016 presidential elections in which the Hispanic vote is expected to be significant.
"They should remember that this is not a fight between Republicans and the president," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, of the National Council of La Raza. "They will be picking a fight with the millions of American families who will finally find some relief."
Even as emotions ran high in debate on the bill, many involved acknowledged it was mostly a sideshow as Republicans struggled to find some way to undo what Obama has done — not just register their disapproval. Party leaders acknowledged their options were limited given Obama's veto pen, and no clear solution beckoned.
The Yoho bill was part of a two-part strategy by House GOP leadership to appease conservative immigration hardliners without risking a government shutdown. Their hope was that after approving it, Republicans would move on next week to vote on legislation to keep most of the government running for a year, with a shorter timeframe for the Homeland Security Department, which oversees immigration. The idea is to revisit Homeland Security early next year when Republicans will control both houses at the Capitol and have more leverage. The current government-funding measure expires Dec. 11 so a new one must pass by then.
But that approach doesn't go far enough for some immigration hardliners, goaded on by outside conservative groups and tea party senators including Ted Cruz of Texas. They say the only real way to stop Obama is to include language in the upcoming spending bill to block any money for his actions on immigration.
"I didn't come back here to just play games," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. "Our voters who sent us back here in a resounding way in the majority, and retaking the majority in the Senate, expected us to be a little more forceful in our fight."
Republican leaders fear such spending-bill language could court an Obama veto and even a government shutdown. That's something they're determined to avoid, a year after taking a political hit for provoking a 16-day partial shutdown in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn Obama's health care law.
House Speaker John Boehner made clear Thursday that his strategy would go forward unchanged and indicated he anticipated Democratic votes would help pass the spending bill. That gives Democrats leverage, and they haven't indicated whether they will lend their support. It also could anger a bloc of conservatives in the House, but Boehner, who will control a larger House majority next year giving him more room to maneuver, showed little patience for their complaints.
"We think this is the most practical way to fight the president's action and frankly we listened to our members, and we listened to some members who are frankly griping the most. This was their idea of how to proceed," Boehner said.