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Immigration Divides Washington; Permanent Resolution Unlikely


The new Republican Congress and the president are hurtling toward a huge confrontation over immigration. The president is planning to use his executive authority to allow temporary deportation relief to certain groups of people who enter the country illegally. The Republicans say if he does, all bets are off. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president says on immigration, he'll keep his promise and act on his own by year's end if Congress does not. But he still prefers that the Republicans pass legislation.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They have the ability, the authority, the control to supersede anything I do through my executive authority by simply carrying out their functions over there.

LIASSON: Is that a threat? Republicans sure see it that way. And they have some threats of their own. If Mr. Obama goes ahead, they say, it could impede progress on everything - including the confirmation of a new attorney general or the passage of a bill to keep the government open. Here are the new Republican leaders of Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull.


REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: If he acts unilaterally, on his own, he will poison the well, and there will be no chance for immigration reform moving in this Congress.

LIASSON: But if Republicans don't move on immigration, will that be because the president stuck his finger in their eye or because they don't have enough Republican votes to pass it? Here's what RNC Chair Reince Priebus told NPR.

REINCE PRIEBUS: I don't think there's going to be massive immigration reform or even significant immigration reform unless and until the border is secured.

LIASSON: And right now, Republicans haven't agreed on much beyond a general concept of border security, says Tamar Jacoby.

TAMAR JACOBY: Look, our side is very divided on this, that - no kidding. To me, the Republicans will be in the strongest position if they can get this behind them before the 2016 election.

LIASSON: That's certainly the view of the GOP leadership. But the rank and file is a different story. There's no longer a consensus that a comprehensive bill, one that secures the border and deals with the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally, is a political necessity for the GOP. Many Republicans see a way to win national elections without passing a bill. Ron Bonjean is a former House leadership aide.

RON BONJEAN: Republicans feel very emboldened about the 2014 election, as well they should. Look, some Republicans ran partly based on a anti-amnesty platform. But the 2016 election will be a very different dynamic, and we may end up not achieving the presidency, even with a quality candidate because we haven't done the right things in connecting with the Hispanic vote.

LIASSON: But other Republicans say their big victory this year means that in 2016 a quality candidate - say, a fluent Spanish speaker, like Jeb Bush - could make Republicans competitive with Latinos without passing an immigration bill. But if all of that means the political imperatives for the GOP are unclear, for President Obama, they are urgent. Because the president has already postponed his actions on deportation relief once, pollster Matt Barreto of Latino Decision says he has to act as he promised by the end of the year. Otherwise, he won't repair the Democratic Party's ties with Latino voters.

MATT BARRETO: We asked a direct question about this, has the delay in executive action made you more or less enthusiastic? And among people who did not vote, 60 percent said the delay in executive action made them less enthusiastic about the president of the Democratic Party.

LIASSON: In 2012, President Obama issued executive orders deferring deportations for the so-called dreamers. Baretto says that was the single biggest factor motivating Latinos to vote Democratic.

BARRETO: If the president acts to provide more relief to millions of immigrants who are in this country - risked getting deported every day, our polling has suggested that an overwhelming majority of Latinos will become more enthusiastic, that they haven't been lost to the Democratic Party forever.

LIASSON: So the White House may feel it has no choice but to move quickly, even though the president's unilateral actions may make it harder to get the kind of legacy legislation he wants or for Republicans to do what might be in their own best political interest. It's shaping up to be a pretty ugly mess, says Tamar Jacoby, who runs a national federation of small businesses in favor of an immigration overhaul.

JACOBY: The employers that I work with and I represent are mostly small- to medium-sized restaurants, construction, home health aides, etc. They're really worried about this and scared because they feel that there is no serious negotiation. Imagine negotiating with your husband in public where everyone can hear the ultimatums, and you can't back down from them. I mean, it's just - this is not a way to get anything done.

LIASSON: The new Congress hasn't even been sworn in, but there's already a consensus forming that a permanent legislative solution on immigration is not very likely. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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