White House

Obama immigration order draws split GOP response from possible candidates

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, right, listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks about recent Republican party gains during a press conference at the Republican governors' conference in Boca Raton, Fla., Nov. 19, 2014.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, right, listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks about recent Republican party gains during a press conference at the Republican governors' conference in Boca Raton, Fla., Nov. 19, 2014. AP

. President Barack Obama’s expected action on immigration is exposing different approaches in the Republican Party, evident Wednesday as six potential candidates for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination differed in how they would ease the nation’s immigration crisis.

Appearing at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association, the six possible candidates were all critical of Obama acting unilaterally on the eve of his anticipated executive order overhauling immigration policy without a vote of Congress.

The tone of their reactions varied, however, a reflection of a years-old struggle within the party over how to deal with the issue. The business community wants compromise, while hard-core conservatives have insisted on border security first before considering any path to citizenship for those who are already in the U.S. illegally.

Some of the potential candidates Wednesday played rough on immigration. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker labeled Obama’s likely act “a cynical ploy to draw attention away from successes Republicans have had.”

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence called an Obama order “a profound mistake,” noting that the American electorate had sent an overwhelming message in the recent elections for Congress and statehouses that they wanted change. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal charged that Obama “may be the first president to ignore the separation of powers.”

Others were somewhat more measured and pointed to their own experiences.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he still hoped that Obama and Republicans could find common ground, and he recalled federal budget negotiations in the 1990s. Those talks, while contentious, helped craft a balanced budget. “Look, I did it,” Kasich said. He was the chairman of the Budget Committee in the House of Representatives at the time.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also talked about finding common ground. Perry urged more secure borders. Once enough manpower and air power are able to truly secure the border, he said, people will be ready to talk reasonably about undocumented immigrants.

“This president is not serious about border security,” Perry said. “Till he does, the American people aren’t going to trust him.”

Christie, pressed for his views on legalization, pointed out that states have already dealt with some of the immigration issues.

He wouldn’t say, though, how he’d handle legalization, “not in a 50,000-foot version at a press conference in Florida when you guys are trying to get me to take a position that I might take if and when I might become a candidate for president of the United States.”

They all spoke at a Republican Governors Association conference at the Boca Raton Resort & Club attended by 32 governors and governors-elect. One former governor and possible candidate, Florida’s Jeb Bush, wasn’t here, but Gov. Rick Scott made sure everyone remembered “Florida’s important, by the way,” both for its electoral-vote haul and possible candidates. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is thought to be in the mix of possible 2016 candidates.

Thursday’s agenda includes high-level sessions on health care, emergency responders and energy policy.

But it also features “optional activities” that include a golf swing clinic, deep-sea fishing, catamaran sailing and paddleboarding.

The star of the show is Christie, the outgoing chairman of the association, who helped raise $106 million this year in campaign funds, visited 36 states and won plaudits Wednesday from everyone.

“My hero,” said Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a view widely shared.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that he’s ready to endorse, nor is anyone else.

“I love Chris Christie,” said Pence. Would he make a good president? “I think the Republican Party has a great bench,” Pence said.

Christie wouldn’t discuss his ambitions, but he did make a pitch for a governor as president, taking a swipe at Obama, who in 2008 became the first incumbent U.S. senator to win the presidency since 1960. Four of the previous five presidents had been governors.

Governors, Christie said, have more experience running large enterprises. As for electing a senator, he said, “I think the American people are through with that experiment.”