GOP's unchanging game plan: Gang up on Obama

Jules Witcover: Ganging up on Obama is the GOP's game plan.

The determination of conservative Republicans to thwart Barack Obama at every turn was clear from the first days after his election in 2008, as their Senate leader Mitch McConnell publicly vowed to make him "a one-term president."

That goal got a significant boost in the 2010 midterm elections, in which the Grand Old Party won control of the House of Representatives. It failed, however, in Mr. Obama's 2012 re-election, but the campaign to derail his liberal agenda was resurrected in 2014 as the GOP took charge of the Senate as well, making Mr. McConnell the majority leader.

Over the previous six years, though, he and House Speaker John Boehner had been able to stymie most of Mr. Obama's domestic agenda, except the prime Republican irritant, The Affordable Care Act, contemptuously labeled Obamacare. Nevertheless, after taking full control of both houses, the new GOP leaders declared they were ready now to show they could get Congress to work together.

Yet they raised the curtain last month with a nonstarter, the 56th failed attempt to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. They followed it with a scheme to scuttle Mr. Obama's immigration plan to delay deportation of millions of undocumented aliens of long residency, including those who came here as children.

The Republican leaders hitched that effort to the funding of the Department of Homeland Security budget, due to run out next week. They were undeterred by the terrorist threat that was continuing to grow, from Western Europe to Africa and the Middle East.

The request came as Mr. Obama was also asking Congress for a new authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against the self-described Islamic State, as well as old al-Qaida offshoots from Libya to Yemen. This latest bid was greeted with mixed enthusiasm in both parties, as were continued Obama diplomatic responses to Russian military adventurism in Ukraine and Iran's evasive negotiations over its nuclear weapons pursuit.

As if the American president didn't already have his hands full, a conservative Republican federal district judge in Texas has now piled on the get-Obama scrum, with a ruling blocking a start to his enrollment of immigrants seeking work permits and protection from deportation. Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, has temporarily held up the enrollments in deference to a pending lawsuit filed by 26 states including Texas challenging constitutionality and legal procedures employed.

While immigration reform opponents have cheered the action, its political ramifications are uncertain. Messrs. Boehner and McConnell continue to dig in their heels, the speaker insisting that the Senate Democrats will take the blame if Homeland Security is shut down. Mr. Obama has already said, however, that he will veto the bill even if the Senate passes it.

The Democratic leaders, Harry Reid in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, cite public-opinion polls on the prospect of another government shutdown, insisting the Republican Party will get the blame. That was indeed the case under the previous unpopular congressional crises in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama presidencies. At stake could be erosion of the GOP's traditional brand as stalwart defender of a muscular national security.

The Texas judge's action on Mr. Obama's deportation plan, which will be appealed by the Justice Department, could give Messrs. Boehner and McConnell a way out. They could note that since the Obama process is at least temporarily on hold, they would release the ransom of Homeland Security money from the legislation and allow the agency to function at full strength. They could resume their opposition later to what they call "amnesty" to the estimated 5 million immigrants involved.

But the spectacle of a representative of the federal judicial branch joining the legislative branch in asserting its powers against the executive may well seem to many voters to be a bit too much in terms of sheer politics. One way or another, the fight is not likely to combat the already deeply rooted public impression that our system of self-government is a train wreck, regardless of which engineers are at the controls.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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