Immigration Action Could Make Obama Even More Radioactive to Democrats
Policy + Politics

Immigration Action Could Make Obama Even More Radioactive to Democrats

Congressional Democratic leaders gathered for dinner with President Obama Wednesday night to review his imminent executive action to protect millions of illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation just one day after most Senate Democrats backed Obama in blocking passage of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

Still reeling from their losses in the midterms that gave Republicans control of the Senate and enhanced the GOP’s majority in the House, Democrats are adjusting to the harsh realities of minority status on Capitol Hill.

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Many vulnerable Senate Democrats distanced themselves from Obama and his unpopular policies during their reelection contests only to lose to Republican challengers in at least eight races. Now the 45 Democrats returning to a GOP-controlled Senate in January must determine if they stand with Obama on some of the thorniest issues, including immigration, or chart their own course.

As the 2016 presidential campaign already begins to heat up, Democratic lawmakers more and more will be drawn into the orbit of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her presumed bid for the White House. Yet even as Obama edges closer to lame-duck status, he’ll retain the power of the bully pulpit and a veto pen to command attention from both Democrats and Republicans.

Whether Democrats largely toe the administration line or take an “every man for himself” approach remains to be seen.

“Clearly the president is trying to develop a united response on the part of Democrats on major initiatives such as Keystone XL and immigration,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has worked on Capitol Hill. “But I think that the members are going to have to go their own way. They’re going to have to take the temperatures of their own constituencies.”

Related: Why America Voted Against Obama’s Economy

He added, “I don’t think the Democrats are united on immigration in either house. The president’s desire for Democratic unity is aspirational, but there’s a big difference between aspiring to it and achieving it.”

So far, there are few signs of a major Democratic revolt against Obama or congressional Democratic leaders. In a showdown vote Tuesday night on the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline, 41 of 55 Democrats sided with the president.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and other mostly liberal Democrats concerned about environmental impacts helped defeat the measure by one vote, though that may have cost the seat of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who pinned her hopes of surviving a Dec. 6 runoff on the bill’s passage. 

But plenty of influential moderate Democrats voting their regional interests broke with the president over it, including Sens. Tom Carper (DE), Bob Casey (PA), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WVA), Mark Warner (VA) and Claire McCaskill (MO) – one of Obama’s biggest boosters during his 2012 reelection campaign.

Related: Obama Accepts Blame for Dems’ Midterm Election Losses

Last night, House and Senate Democrats dined with the president as he previewed his executive order to overhaul the immigration system. It would provide work permits for up to five million people who are living illegally in the U.S, and protect them from the threat of deportation.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – ardent foes of the executive action – were not invited. The president is discounting warnings from both Boehner and McConnell that the executive order would poison prospects for cooperation between Republicans and the White House.

Some Democrats, including Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL), who was invited to the White House dinner, praised Obama for a courageous stance that will bring many illegal immigrants out of society’s shadows.

“We have given the Republicans many chances,” Gutierrez told MSNBC yesterday, referring to immigration reform. “They should stop crying and whining and start legislating.”

Related: The New Senate Power Grid: Here’s Who Has the Juice 

Other Democrats facing reelection in 2016 may think twice about embracing the president’s immigration order, which plays into the GOP narrative of a “lawless” president who is circumventing Congress before the new Republican Congress has a chance to consider new legislation.

Still other liberal Democrats and Hispanics who have questioned Obama’s commitment to immigration reform are certain to complain his executive order doesn’t go far enough. According to some reports, Obama has decided against guaranteeing protections for parents of the so-called Dreamers, the children protected by the president’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, or for immigrant agricultural workers.

This much is clear: The vanquished Democrats have pretty much decided to stick with their leadership lineup – with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada returning next year as the Minority Leader, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) staying in place as House Minority Leader. 

Reid and Pelosi, both 74 and long-time powerhouses in Washington, took their licks from some of their more outspoken members, then made key leadership adjustments to appease restive liberal Democrats and Hispanics.

Related: Obama, McConnell, Boehner: Wise Up for America

Reid carved out a new strategic leadership post for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a fast-rising liberal. And in a surprise move, Pelosi handpicked Rep. Ben Lujan (D-NM), 42, to be chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s main campaign arm.

There are still, however, cracks in the House Democratic façade: Yesterday House Democrats ignored Pelosi’s pleas and picked Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey over Rep. Anna Eshoo of California to serve as ranking member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.  In the Senate, many Democrats worry their party lacks a strong message for middle-class voters that goes beyond Obama’s mantra of health care reform, immigration, pay equity for women, and minimum wage increases.

“We need to show a contrast between where we stand on things and where Republicans stand,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). “This decline of middle-class wages – the Republicans aren’t going to address. They want more tax cuts for wealthy people. They want to continue this direction even more and Democrats have to stand up on issues like that.”

Manchin, a moderate Democrat, says he is more concerned about the views of his constituents than coordinating a strategy with the White House.

Related: Despite Setback, Manchin Vows to Press for Gun Control

He said Democrats need to better explain what they’re doing and trying to do to help middle class Americans if they hope to bounce back from the midterm debacle. “Why do they feel so insecure?” he said. “Why have they not gotten ahead? Why is there so much inequality in the pay scale, if you will?”

Why It Matters
Democrats are walking a tightrope. They can’t afford to alienate Obama’s solid base among minorities, especially blacks and Latinos, by appearing to put too much distance between themselves and the president and once again depressing the voter turnout in 2016.

Yet Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, says the reality is Democrats have little choice but to cast their lot with Obama and hope for the best – at least until Hillary Clinton emerges as the party’s standard bearer.

“There's very little they can do independently,” Sabato said. “They are defined by President Obama in the public's view, and they will be until he leaves office. The new nominee will help redefine them a little, but that’s not until summer 2016. But that may be their salvation – rallying to the new standard bearer during the only season that matters anymore, election season.”

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