Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Tuesday morning defended President Obama's move to defer deportation for roughly four million undocumented immigrants as House Republicans met nearby to discuss the best way to block the president.
"I'm satisfied as a lawyer myself and the person who has to come here and defend these actions that what we have done is well within our existing legal authority," Johnson told the House Homeland Security Committee during a hearing entitled, "Open Borders: The Impact of Presidential Amnesty on Border Security."
But Republicans have been clear they disagree on the legality of the order. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida, has introduced a bill that would nullify the president's ability to exempt anyone from deportation. Even though the bill stands no chance of becoming law - the Democratically-controlled Senate would not take up the bill, and the president could veto it if it is passed when Republicans take over the Senate next year - it is the first step House Republicans are likely to take in their fight to stop the president's executive action.
"We're looking at a number of options in terms of how we address this. This is a serious breach of our Constitution, it's a serious threat to our system of government, and frankly we have limited options and limited abilities to deal with it directly," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Tuesday. "That's why we're continuing to talk to our members, we have not made decisions about how we're going to proceed, but we are in fact going to proceed."
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The House may also seek to separate out agencies that deal with immigration enforcement in a spending bill they must pass by Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown. While the rest of the government would be funded for a full year, they would pass a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to fund immigration agencies for just a few months. That would allow them to reconsider their options for using the power of the purse string to undo Mr. Obama's executive order when they control both chambers of Congress next year.
At the hearing, Johnson alluded to the plan and warned lawmakers it was "a very bad idea for homeland security."
"We've got some homeland security priorities that need to be funded now," Johnson said. "For example we are back in a presidential election cycle. I cannot hire new Secret Service agents until I get an appropriations bill passed by this Congress, not another CR for a couple of months. I cannot continue to fund our enhanced detention capability in Texas with another CR that gets me to March. I need the help of Congress to help and build upon border security which I believe all of you support, so I'm urging that we act on our current appropriations request now for the purpose and for the sake of border security and homeland security."
But Johnson was up against several Republicans who believe that stopping the president from deferring any deportations is a matter of the utmost importance.
"The president's unilateral actions to bypass Congress undermine the Constitution and threaten our democracy. There is no doubt our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, but regardless of how you feel about immigration reform, there is a right way to fix it, and there is a wrong way. And unfortunately the president has taken the wrong way," the committee chairman, Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, said in his opening statements.
As he questioned Johnson, McCaul highlighted the president's many past statements - some to immigration activists pressing him to unilaterally suspend deportations - that he could not change the law.
"Who should we believe: The president before the election who said he didn't have legal authority to take this action, or the president after the election who says he does have the authority?" he asked.
Johnson, for his part, resisted GOP lawmakers who cited excerpts of the president's previous remarks, but also said he had looked at Mr. Obama's previous statements and concluded, "I do not believe that what we have done is inconsistent with that."
Other Republican congressmen pressed Johnson over the metrics that will be used to define operational control of the border, the release of illegal immigrants who had criminal convictions, the potential for fraud within the application process of the president's order, and the cost of the program.
They also rebuffed suggestions from the administration that they should respond to the president's actions by passing a law of their own.
"Why would you pass another law when the administration fails to enforce the current laws that are on the books? Why pass another one that's not going to be enforced either?" asked Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-South Carolina.
Later, in response to a Democrat who was discussing the fact that the House had not voted on immigration legislation, Johnson said, "I believe that if we could just strip away the emotion and the politics on this issue and you brought me the right group of members of the House of Representatives, I could negotiate a bill with you and I'm issuing that invitation again. I believe we could do it. It's really - it should not be that difficult."