WASHINGTON – The rhetoric is barbed, but Republican presidential hopefuls generally fell in line behind the voices of restraint in the wake of President Barack Obama’s order blocking deportation for millions of immigrants in the country unlawfully.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a tea party favorite in the 2012 race, urged the Republican leadership in Congress to “use any means available to stop this unconstitutional attack on our liberty.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who once filibustered the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director in a dispute over surveillance of U.S. citizens, said: “I will not sit idly by and let the president bypass Congress and our Constitution.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who voted for the bipartisan bill that cleared the Senate in 2013, said the Congress should try to unravel Obama’s actions, and he called for Republicans to call a vote early next year on a strict immigration enforcement bill.
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Yet he, like nearly all other potential presidential contenders, offered no specifics on what sort of response they favor to try and force a presidential retreat.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has been an exception. He said the new Republican-controlled Senate that takes office in January should refuse to confirm any of Obama’s nominees except for vital national security positions as long as the president’s order remains in effect.
Interviewed on Fox on Sunday, he also said Republicans should “use the power of the purse” to attach conditions to funding, but offered no details. He disputed the suggestion that the government shutdown of a year ago inflicted long-lasting damage on the party, noting its sweeping mid-term election victories.
Republican leaders in Congress have vowed to take action in response to Obama, but have yet to say precisely how. An attempt to block his actions by restricting the use federal funds is among the possibilities, although the president could veto that. So, too, is incorporating the issue into a lawsuit the House filed on Friday against the administration’s moves to implement the health care act.
Another possible response, triggering a government shutdown in hopes of turning back Obama’s order, is viewed by incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner as a non-starter, particularly at the outset of a new era of Republican control of Congress. Even more so is starting impeachment proceedings.
The general reticence among presidential hopefuls comes at a time on the political calendar when jockeying for support among party activists routinely increases. With mid-term elections in the past, the focus will inevitably turn quickly toward the first caucuses and primaries now little more than a year away.
Public polls suggest immigration is an issue that divides conservatives who form the core of the Republican party from the rest of the electorate.
In exit polls from the Nov. 4 elections, 59 percent of those surveyed said they favored allowing immigrants to remain in the country and work even if they are here illegally, and only 39 percent said they favored deportation.
Support for allowing immigrants to remain in the country was 74 percent among Hispanics, whose impact on Republican presidential primaries is generally negligible, but who represent the fastest growing part of the national electorate.
Among conservative Republicans, only 36 percent said immigrants in the country illegally should be given a way to seek legal status.
In the first few days after the president’s speech, pressure from tea party activists who have been influential in the past has yet to coalesce.
Jenny Beth Martin, who heads the Tea Party Patriots, asked for signatures on a petition to Congress to “defund executive amnesty.”
More than a year ago, tea party groups were instrumental in pushing GOP lawmakers to defund the president’s health care law. Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, took up the cause. The ensuing struggle between the GOP-controlled House and Obama produced a partial government shutdown that sent public support for Republicans plummeting.
At a meeting of Republican governors in Florida in recent days, Tex. Gov. Rick Perry said Obama’s action was akin to “sticking a finger in the eye of the American people” and said a lawsuit was “a real possibility.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another possible presidential hopeful, blamed Obama for failing to deal with immigration, said a government shutdown should be avoided and declined to say what he would do in response. A request Friday for additional information went unanswered.
In contrast to Republicans, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted her thanks to Obama on Thursday evening “for taking action on immigration in the face of inaction.”
She added, “Now let’s turn to permanent bipartisan reform.”