A Texas Judge May Save Republicans From Themselves

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Speaker of the House John Boehner listens as U.S. President Barack Obama talks as he hosts a luncheon for bi-partisan Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington, November 7, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Late Monday night, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, based in Brownsville, Texas, ruled that President Obama’s executive action on immigration will not go forward until certain legal questions surrounding the orders have been resolved.

The orders were set to go into effect tomorrow, and would have provided deportation protection to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. However, 26 states, including Texas, sued the Obama administration over the orders, claiming the president overstepped his constitutional authority.

Texas’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, called Hanen’s ruling a “crucial first step in reining in President Obama's lawlessness,” the Houston Chronicle reports.

The ruling means that, until those suits are resolved in federal court, or the Justice Department successfully appeals the ruling, Obama’s immigration actions are on hold, which is bad news for immigration reform advocates (though probably not unexpected—Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, is “an outspoken critic of the administration on immigration policy,” according to the New York Times). But it’s great news for Republicans, and in more ways than one.

It’s an obvious win for Republicans who have considered Obama’s move bad policy and an executive overreach. They vowed to stymie him when he announced his plan in November, and they celebrated when Hanen handed down his decision yesterday.

But Hansen's ruling also helps them fix another problem, one of their own devising—namely, the struggle to fund the Department of Homeland Security.

A bit of background: the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, is a cabinet department created after 9/11 and charged with preventing terrorist attacks. Its budget is vast (though not the biggest—that honor goes to the Department of Defense): Obama requested $38.2 billion in DHS funding for FY 2015. Compare that to, say, the Small Business Administration, another cabinet department, which got a measly $0.7 billion for FY 2015. The department includes things like the TSA, which famously provides airport security, as well as the Secret Service and the Coast Guard.

The DHS generally has little trouble getting funded. Fighting terrorism is universally popular. But this year, Republicans in the House have said they will not agree to the appropriations bill which would give the DHS the money it needs to keep operating unless it contains a proviso to roll back Obama’s executive action on immigration. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have refused such measures, saying they will fund the DHS whether or not the appropriations bill contains such language. And Democrats have stood united for a “clean bill” that would fund the department without dealing with Obama’s immigration policy.

This has put Republicans in a tight spot: On one hand, they really hate Obama’s executive action on immigration; on the other, they don’t want to be seen as weak on terrorism—and taking away funding from the U.S.’s primary anti-terrorism agency would likely say to voters that Republicans are willing to put politics above safety. They’ve been blamed by the public for past shutdowns and don’t want to go through another embarrassment—especially now that they control both chambers. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed that there won’t be any more shutdowns. House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that the threat of cutting off DHS funding should continue.

Now, however, Republicans don’t have to choose—at least for a while. With Obama’s actions on hold, Republicans in the House are free to pass a clean DHS appropriations bill without looking weak on terror, and Senate Republicans can approve it without looking weak on immigration. But they’ll have to do so by the end of the month, and Congress isn’t back until the February 23. By that time, an appeals court may have allowed Obama’s immigration policy to go forward—starting the whole mess over again and perhaps leaving the fate of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the hands of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.