President Donald Trump took executive action on immigration Wednesday while Republican lawmakers met for their retreat 150 miles away in Philadelphia. And they loved it.
Yet many of the same GOP lawmakers condemned President Barack Obama when he exercised his executive power on immigration in 2014 . One of their chief complaints about Obama is that he acted on immigration, the environment and other matters without consulting Congress.
The two executive orders that Trump, a Republican, signed Wednesday would begin construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall he promised during his presidential campaign, and strip funding for “sanctuary cities” that do not prosecute immigrants in the country illegally.
“For years, Americans have demanded that Washington do its job and secure our borders,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “Today, President Trump took bold action to finally make it happen.”
McCaul had a very different view of Obama’s 2014 actions that the White House then characterized as a crackdown on illegal immigration at the border. He also expanded a program that allowed immigrants in the U.S. illegally who’d come as children to stay in the country and work, as well as protecting the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens from deportation.
“The president’s decision to bypass Congress and grant amnesty to millions of unlawful immigrants is unconstitutional and a threat to our democracy,” McCaul said at the time. “There is no doubt our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, but this does not mean the president has the authority to act without Congress.
Congressional Republicans are spending three days in Philadelphia this week discussing their 2017 agenda. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are scheduled to meet with the lawmakers Thursday.
Other lawmakers who had protested Obama’s methods, insisting he was bypassing Congress, were eager to support Trump’s orders on Wednesday.
“I am pleased with President Trump’s actions to secure our southern border and improve immigration enforcement,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. “ I congratulate President Trump for reversing the disastrous policies of the prior administration and making good on his promise to keep America safe.”
In 2015, Labrador said Obama had provoked “a constitutional crisis” by circumventing Congress.
“The House defended its constitutional authority to make the law of the land in today’s vote to oppose President Obama’s unconstitutional executive actions on immigration,” Labrador said then of a vote to block Department of Homeland Security funding for enforcement of Obama’s policy.
Susan Phalen, a spokeswoman for McCaul, explained the difference between Obama’s actions and Trump’s, but acknowledged that both presidents had the legal authority to make them.
“President Obama’s executive orders were designed to either circumvent or break existing laws,” she said. “President Trump’s executive orders are designed to enforce existing laws.”
Trump could still face challenges from his own party in trying to go much further. Some Republican lawmakers have pushed the idea of restoring the primacy of Congress in policymaking, no matter who’s in the White House.
“The authors of the Constitution intended Congress to be first among the federal government’s three co-equal branches,” says a description of the Article I Project, led by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “Congress was meant to be the driving force in federal policymaking.”
While Trump had been in office only five days, some fissures were already showing between the president and Republican lawmakers. They’re expected to become more apparent Thursday, as the congressional retreat continues.
Amid reports Wednesday that Trump planned to sign another executive order reviewing interrogation policies for terrorism suspects, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, made clear where he’d draw the line.
“The president can sign whatever executive orders he likes,” McCain said. “But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America.”
Trump had defended the CIA’s harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects, including waterboarding, practices that McCain and others consider torture.
Could Republicans break with Trump on his executive actions?
“The question is, are they enforcing the law? Are they moving in excess of the law? Are they doing things they don’t have the statutory authority to do?” said Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican who opposed Trump’s nomination last year.
“When they take these executive actions that exceed the statutes,” he said, “well, then we’ve got a problem.”