Full Episode: Policy & Politics of Immigration Reform & What Lies Ahead in Washington

Nov. 21, 2014 AT 2:03 p.m. EST

President Obama's immigration decision and the Republican response questioning the president's authority. Also what will Obama's lame duck years look like going up against a new GOP Congress? Plus, will an immigration overhaul impact Election 2016?

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: The president rolls the dice, setting in motion a plan to alter the nation’s immigration laws and goading Republicans into a fight, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.

MS. IFILL: The president challenges Congress to a duel.

HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From videotape.) The people’s house will rise to this challenge. We will not stand idle as the president undermines the rule of law in our country and places lives at risk.

MS. IFILL: High noon. As undocumented immigrants see the possibility of reuniting families, Democrats say they will force action.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID (R-NV): (From videotape.) We told the president, and we’re telling him before all these TV cameras, we’ve got his back.

MS. IFILL: And Republicans mount a fierce push-back.

SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From videotape.) When, President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience?

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From videotape.) Some people seem to have forgotten this already, but we just had an election.

MS. IFILL: The White House sets the stage for two years of confrontation that could yet define the Obama legacy. We examine that standoff tonight with John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC; Fawn Johnson, correspondent for National Journal; Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for ABC News; and John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and political director for CBS News.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”

MS. IFILL: Good evening. A lot happened in Washington this week that, taken together, gave us a pretty clear view into what the next two years will look like. There was policy, the president leaning in on immigration, the Democrats blocking action on the Keystone pipeline, and Republicans turning aside efforts to end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records. The common thread: Heels dug in on both sides of the aisle and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Today the president took that fight to Nevada.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) It has now been 512 days, a year and a half, in which the only thing standing in the way of that bipartisan bill and my desk so that I can sign that bill, the only thing that’s been standing in the way is a simple yes-or-no vote in the House of Representatives – just a yes-or-no vote. Las Vegas, I’ve come back to Del Sol to tell you I’m not giving up. I will never give up.

MS. IFILL: What’s gotten lost in all the cross-party crossfire? The specifics of the president’s proposal, which would shield as many as 5 million undocumented residents from deportation, provide additional resources for border enforcement, and focus deportation on criminals; not included, a path to citizenship or a price tag.

So how does this compare to what we have seen come before, Fawn?

FAWN JOHNSON: It’s way bigger. And that’s really the best way to – I know that sounds kind of corny, but that’s exactly it. This is not something that is entirely new that the president – any president has really done on immigration.

Keep in mind that the way that immigration law works – and this is particularly the case before 9/11, when it was essentially just, you know, kind of a stock in trade at the border; you know, the customs people would just check your ID and off you go – these agencies only get funded for a certain amount. So they can’t take everybody who comes through.

So it was always considered to be you set your priorities; you decide who you’re going to go after. And that’s essentially what the president did. He started it a couple of years ago with the children, and now he’s continuing.

MS. IFILL: Except in this case it changed who gets protected and why. At least the reasoning seemed to change this time.

JOHN HARWOOD: He justified, on a legal basis, that Congress has recognized the principle of family unification so that, in the past, children of people who had legal status were able to be pulled in in that way. This time he reversed that, and he took parents of children who are either citizens or legal permanent residents and said you can apply for legal status; not a path to citizenship, but you can work here. You can apply for a work permit, and you can be confident that for a three-year period of time you’re not going to be deported. That’s 4 million of the 5 (million).

MS. IFILL: But that was – there was a line there that the Office of Legal Counsel would not cross, and that’s allowing the parents of DREAMers –

MS. JOHNSON: Yeah. And I think that was their argument, especially with the advocacy community, about whether the parents – so here the parent of a child who, at one point, was undocumented and now has this quasi-legal status that comes from what we call the DACA program – that doesn’t give you quite enough leverage to say that you should be in the United States, you know, with your own quasi-legal status.

And I think part of the issue there is - keep in mind that the reason why the DREAMers are getting a stay of deportation – it’s important to remember this isn’t really legalization. It’s essentially like I’m reporting to be deported, and now you’re going to not do it. And, oh, you can have –

MR. HARWOOD: But the end – the distinction is grounded in the difference between being a citizen – having a family member who’s a citizen, has a green card, legal permanent resident, and those who have quasi-legal status.

JOHN DICKERSON: And the reason that this seems so complicated – and it must to anybody who’s listening – is that the White House is trying very hard to come up with a legal rationale for what the president is doing, because while presidents before have done similar things, the numbers of undocumented immigrants that have been let in or given this quasi-status has been much lower.

Now, you could talk about percentages when previous presidents have done this. The total number of undocumented immigrants was also a lot lower. But still, this is big compared to what previous presidents have done. What it is small relative to is the 11.3 million total undocumented immigrants. So it’s a little less than half of that.

MS. IFILL: Which is (more than ?) it was.

MR. DICKERSON: So the president is doing a big thing, but he’s not doing what that bipartisan bill that passed the Senate with 68 votes would have done, which was to give a path to citizenship for everyone here who is undocumented.

MS. IFILL: Well, when the president says pass that bill, what bill was he talking about?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, he’s talking about – in his view, it would be his own bill. (Laughter.) He’s essentially saying pass my idea, which, of course, is never going to happen in this Congress. But he’d be fine with the Senate bill. In fact, they were fine with the Senate bill.

I was struck by in his speech – I thought it was the most aggressive moral defense of why this is – it’s at the fabric of our country. We have not – I couldn’t recall him giving an immigration speech like that in so long.

MS. JOHNSON: Ever, really. It was –

MR. ZELENY: I mean, perhaps in the `08 campaign, but I don’t think since the `08 campaign that he was in that very same high school in Las Vegas the week after the New Hampshire primary. I was looking it up. It sounded familiar. But he was making the moral argument, I thought, which was so striking. But by saying pass that bill, of course, going forward, that’s the question. Is a bill ever going to happen here?

MR. HARWOOD: And there’s a big difference between deferral of deportation and a path to citizenship.

MR. ZELENY: Right.

MR. HARWOOD: That’s fundamentally what the Senate bill does.

MS. IFILL: But one of the interesting things, as you point out, is that the president – the disagreement with the president so far has not been about the moral argument, has not been about the rightness of it.


MS. IFILL: Much of the blowback to the president’s proposal has actually been about – has not been about the proposal itself. It’s been about the process. This was House Speaker John Boehner today.

SPEAKER BOEHNER: (From videotape.) As I warned the president, you can’t ask the elected representatives of the people to trust you to enforce the law if you’re constantly demonstrating that you can’t be trusted to enforce the law. The president never listens. And with this action, he has refused to listen to the American people. The president has taken actions that he himself has said are those of a king or an emperor, not an American president.

MS. IFILL: He said he’s damaging the presidency. So with words like unconstitutional being thrown about, any middle ground seems to have been completely abandoned, John.

MR. DICKERSON: Yes. Now, the reason that Republicans are unified on the question of process, are unified on the president being an emperor, is that there are plenty of Republicans who don’t like the idea that what the president has done is given leniency to lawbreakers. And the president mentioned this in his remarks, that these people have, in fact, broken the law.

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. DICKERSON: There are – but once you get into the question of you’ve broken the –

MS. IFILL: And, by the way, we should point out that a lot of immigration activists are not happy about that part of it, the focus on border enforcement, the focus on supporting increasing deportations of criminals.

MR. DICKERSON: Right. But Republicans are making the case that he’s being an emperor because that is unpopular. In the Wall Street Journal poll, more people did not want the president to go ahead. I think it was 48 percent wanted him not to go ahead; only 38 percent wanted him to go ahead on this sort of go-it-alone approach. And that is kind of an easier and simpler argument.

And it doesn’t hurt or – you know, Republicans are trying to stay unified and not say anything that might seem offensive to Latino voters. And if you keep it on process, it keeps it away from anything that might seem to attack the kinds of people who are being let in here.

MR. ZELENY: You’re right about that. I was struck by talking to so many Republicans on the Hill this week. The word amnesty was on talk radio a ton, but it was not coming out of the mouths of most Senate Republicans I talked to, because you’re absolutely right. They are afraid to say that. And it’s not amnesty in many respects. But it was striking to me how disciplined, at least as of now, they are, talking about the process. That’s going to fall apart, I think.

MR. HARWOOD: I’m very skeptical that that distinction is going to penetrate with the people that they’re trying to avoid offending.

MS. IFILL: Well, but part of it is that amnesty – if you start to use the word amnesty, doesn’t that more likely take us back to Ronald Reagan and the Nicaraguans than it does? Isn’t that a more reasonable comparison?

MS. JOHNSON: Well, if you’re going to be reasonable about the definition, yes. But –

MS. IFILL: This is not about reason.

MS. JOHNSON: Actually, it’s not. And the thing that I find – I mean, one of the things that Obama said –

MR. : (Inaudible.)

MS. JOHNSON: - in his prerecorded speech was he said that our current system is amnesty. And, you know, to a certain extent he’s correct. Amnesty actually – the technical definition of it is what Ronald Reagan did. He said you come forward, you tell us who you are, you tell us you’ve been in the country, and we’re going to say you’re forgiven and you can stay here forever.

MS. IFILL: And this does not do that.

MS. JOHNSON: Well, what the president is doing certainly does not do that. But neither would the Senate bill that they talk about. I mean, that bill was so onerous that a lot of the really grassrootsy kind of activists actually backed away from it, because they said nobody’s ever going to make it through this 11-year process. So you really can’t – amnesty is essentially, you know, you’ve done something bad and, you know, we’re going to pardon you. It’s gone. It’s erased.

MS. IFILL: But, you know, part of – anticipating this fight over process, the president, you know, got a Office of Legal Counsel, like, 33-page, very dense opinion.

MR. ZELENY: And released it, which almost never happens.

MS. IFILL: And released it, which – in fact, some of the critics were in advance saying you’d better release it or – oh, you’ve released it. OK. Well, now I have to read it. But trying to justify what they would and what they would not do to take down this idea of a king, emperor, by fiat, a dictat, saying this is what will be.

MR. DICKERSON: Right, and trying to show that they had thought this through, that this wasn’t some reckless thing. I think the other thing – when you heard the president mention 500 days –

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. DICKERSON: - there is both – that’s both a policy point – his argument is the Republicans haven’t done anything, and so I must act – but there’s also a little bit of politics in that, which is they’re not acting in Washington. And he wants the conversation to be about them not acting. And so the 33 pages is – this is all of the rigmarole we have to go through to do anything because the Republicans have not acted. So it has that kind of two-part element to it.

MS. IFILL: Part of the proposal also, or the push-back, it has to do with (being offended ?) for what the president wants to do. Is there anything to that? Is there a path to block the president’s intent that way?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, they’re going to try. But it’s difficult, because some of the programs that are pursuant to what the president is doing are funded by fees. And Congress can’t cut (those funds ?).

Secondly, the money for border enforcement, which is at the core of how he’s framing this – I’m shifting resources toward border enforcement and deportations of higher-risk individuals – how do you cut that? Do Republicans really want to say I’m going to cut funds for border enforcement? So it’s going to be difficult. But they’re going to try. And you can expect riders on appropriations bills that say no money shall be used to give legal status to people. And we’ll see whether they can prevail on that.

MS. IFILL: On some level, it seems like the fight over process is precisely what the American voters were saying they were sick of this election year. So it’ll be interesting to see where that goes, because then the question becomes who has the leverage. Is it the lame-duck Congress or the lame-duck president? And will that shift again once the new Republican majority takes over the Senate.

Here are three measuring sticks: The confirmation prospects for the president’s nominations, including his attorney general; the continuing challenges to the Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans still want to weaken and repeal; and the Keystone pipeline vote, which Republicans have vowed to revisit.

SENATOR JOHN HOEVEN (R-ND): (From videotape.) We knew we’d be in the new Congress on this issue because the president has made it clear he’s going to veto this bill. And so we are prepared to come back. And if you do the math, we have 59 votes today. But if you look at the new Congress, you can count four more right away net.

MS. IFILL: So, Jeff, as they count these things up, who has the upper hand now?

MR. ZELENY: I think Republicans will have the upper hand going forward once January begins in the new Congress. But the problem here is we also heard the idea of a government shutdown. The president was very eager to include that in his speech at the White House, then his speech in Las Vegas. But Republicans so far have been incredibly disciplined about saying we’re not going to shut the government down.

The reason this is even on the table for discussion is they need to do another spending bill to keep the government open past December 11 th . It is very difficult to attach immigration onto this. A few people are saying they should, but most Republican leaders say absolutely not; the government won’t shut down. But going into January, Republicans have an upper hand.

MR. HARWOOD: The question is whether the leaders can control their members, though.

MR. ZELENY: Right. In the past they haven’t been able to. But even some of the supporters of the shutdown at the time say, OK, it was a bad idea. So I’d be surprised if it happens.

But going into January, Republicans have the upper hand when it comes to so many of these issues. I mean, on the Keystone pipeline, we’ll see if the president actually signs it. But, I mean, this new Republican majority is going to flex its muscle. And it’s going to be fascinating.

MS. IFILL: Try to get it approved; try to force the president to approve it.

MR. DICKERSON: One of the challenges that John is mentioning is for the Republican leaders. What’s happening to them – I talked to a staffer today who says the phones are lighting up like at “Obamacare” level, so back at 2010, with constituents calling in and just furious. And what –

MS. IFILL: About?

MR. DICKERSON: About this move – the president’s move on immigration, because they’re – when you talk to conservatives about this, what they see is – this isn’t just about immigration. This is a shot at the fabric of America. This is the idea that you can break the law and get away with it, and that that is bad in the first place because, you know, there are a few basic principles.

One is if you play by the rules, then, you know, the benefits of America will come to you. Well, if the rules don’t mean anything, then the benefits are at risk. And they also think that the other benefits, the economic benefits, are at risk by this, that the economy will suffer, that there will be competition for jobs.

Now, the White House has answers for that. But the Republicans are the ones who need to have answers for their very angry constituents, and they need to show they’re doing something. And it’s complex. And the Senate leaders want to wait at least until next year. That may be waiting too long.

MS. IFILL: So how does the president get his way on anything else? You know, we’ve used the – it’s become a cliche now, poisoned the well. How does he get his attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch, confirmed? How does he get some leeway on things like Keystone? How does he get some leeway on things like bulk collection of records, which frankly will expire next June if Congress doesn’t do anything about it, if everybody is still so ticked off, if there’s no political advantage to trying to figure this out?

MR. HARWOOD: The Republican – new Republican Congress is not going to give him much, and he doesn’t need much from them. He has gotten to a point where you can see it in his face. Look in his eyes when he’s talking. He has had it up to here with the Congress and his belief that they are simply not willing to deal in a straightforward fashion.

So he’s pursuing his climate agenda through the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s pursuing his immigration –

MS. IFILL: Well, and through international agreements.

MR. HARWOOD: Correct, with China, that he can do as the leader of the country; and with the immigration action. Anything else – he will get his attorney general nominee, because the Republicans (feel that ?) they can’t block the United States from having an attorney general. Nobody has found anything seriously disqualifying about Loretta Lynch.

But other than that – bring trade deals, keep the government open; he’ll try to make Mitch McConnell and John Boehner stick to their word, keep the government open – that may be about it. I don’t think he needs much more.

MR. ZELENY: I’m still not sure about that. I think Republicans – I actually take them at their word when they say they want to have a responsible governing majority. I think we’ll see a few small things, perhaps.

MR. HARWOOD: What are they?

MS. IFILL: Well, there was –

MR. ZELENY: You mentioned a couple of them. But I think that Mitch McConnell is eager to show that Republicans can work. And heading into 2016, I think the Republican Party wants to, you know, be a little bit more grown up. We’ll see if that happens or not. But the presidential campaign is right around the corner, of course, and that’s going to veer everything off to the right.

MS. JOHNSON: And last year one of the more amazing things that I saw happen was, you know, sort of under the cover of night – not really, because this didn’t (add ?) that much – but there was this bill called the Workforce Investment Act. It hadn’t been reauthorized in 13 years. I got a phone call from a staffer who – we used to have a joke that he and I were the only ones that actually knew this law existed. And he said, you know, we’re close to a deal. And I said, OK, sure.

But as it turns out, what had happened was that sometime in January the House Republican leaders – this is John Kline, a pretty conservative guy – had gotten notice from Harry Reid that there was a small window on the Senate calendar sometime in the spring. And they managed to get together and put together a deal. And, you know, it worked out. It was all under the radar. They were fighting about everything else.

MS. IFILL: And, of course, that’s exactly how things happen in Washington. All this is playing out with an eye on the next round of elections. It did not go unnoticed that Hillary Clinton immediately endorsed the president’s action last night, saying Congress had abdicated its responsibility to pass legislation – exactly what the president was saying.

And it was no accident that the president headed to Las Vegas today and to a state where nearly 18 percent of the state’s students have parents who are undocumented. The president is counting on the Republicans to get stuck between a rock and a hard place – the need to defeat him being the rock and the need to appeal to Latino voters the hard place.

How does that balance out, John?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s what he thinks will happen. He hopes that the Republicans will stumble and not only – that there will be a protracted fight and they will look bad in that fight; that some of their more excitable members will come out and say things that will be offensive and that will dominate news cycles and will offend the Latino community. And the Democrats can say we fought for you.

It’s one of the reasons, in talking to White House officials about why the president didn’t maybe try and give the Republicans a chance, now that they were in power, to finally put together an immigration bill, they said if we delayed on this, our friends in the Latino community, who’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting, would punish us. And you think, well, the president’s leaving. They would punish Democrats. And so they felt like they had to pay off this debt.

MS. IFILL: They were already punishing Democrats. They were showing up at Hillary Clinton rallies and they were heckling. And they were even heckling the president today, even though he was giving them part of what they wanted.

MR. ZELENY: But some Democrats on Capitol Hill were also not thrilled about the process of this. Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, she said that it poisons the well; that she thinks that he was overstepping his authority.

MS. IFILL: The three Democratic senators who said that, they’re all from states where Obama didn’t win, right?

(Cross talk.)

MS. IFILL: McCaskill, Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp. I’ve got a feeling they’re going to end up as part of the anti-Harry Reid, anti-Barack Obama caucus.

MR. ZELENY: Exactly.

MR. HARWOOD: But I will say I talked to some former Obama White House aides, who also had questions about what the president’s done. They’re wondering whether his frustration level has gotten the best of him and made him push too far, too aggressively at this moment, when you do have a new Congress and a moment to, if not get much from them, at least turn a new page and get a new Congress.

MS. IFILL: Well, think for a moment about some of the people on the Republican side who are interested in running for president, whether it’s Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, Republicans in the Senate who kind of supported the big Senate bill and now are in this position where they want to say, well, we like this but not that. How do they sort this out and get their position?

MS. JOHNSON: That’s a good question. And I actually – one of the things – Marco Rubio, of course, is the one that everyone watched for a long time just a couple of years ago because he was the one that had all of the credentials from the tea party, you know, to say if I’m on board with this bill, you guys can follow me and it’ll be OK.

And it was amazing, once that started, once it passed and then the House Republicans were hands off, that Marco Rubio all of a sudden started talking about lots of other things instead of immigration. And he still does. It’ll be really interesting how he tries to resolve that if he becomes a serious contender, because – and what he has said and what he will continue to say, I’m sure, is that, you know, he supported this because he thought it was the right thing to do. There were some parts of it that he compromised on. But then he can immediately go and criticize the president for what he did.

(Cross talk.)

MR. ZELENY: - going to actually repeal what the president did.

MS. IFILL: That becomes the next question. Who is the Republican who’s going to say, you know what, we’ve changed our minds; you can’t stay?

MR. HARWOOD: None. I mean, none.


MS. IFILL: Which means that everybody has now been put between that rock and that hard place.

MR. DICKERSON: But it means they’ve got to move fast if they’re going to do anything at all, because the more this gets in place – but also, one thing that – talking to somebody who works on this issue, and has for a long time, said, you know, watch what the people who are supposed to benefit from this actually do, because there’s some nervousness, because you sign up, you give your name. You point out where you are. And if Republicans flip this policy in two years, all of these people who’ve been living here under fear of deportation have that fear looming over their heads again if Republicans take control.

MS. IFILL: And they’re paying taxes to boot.


MS. IFILL: And the president set a precedent which perhaps another president would apply the opposite way. So this is way more complicated than it seems, and it’s way more than just what a lame-duck president is supposed to be up to. He’s supposed to be just resting, isn’t he?

MR. ZELENY: (Inaudible) - foreign policy and everything else.

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MR. DICKERSON: And I talked to one former aide of his who said he feels a little bit liberated now. He no longer has to worry about hurting Democrats who are running. He’s doing things now because he –

MR. ZELENY: I don’t know about that.

MS. IFILL: Well, we’re going to – we’ll pick up on this in the webcast, how’s that, because I don’t know about it either. But it’ll be interesting to see.

Thank you, everybody.

We have to go now. But, as always, the conversation will continue online. The “Washington Week” Webcast Extra streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, and you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek, where, among other things, you can hear what we’ll all be giving thanks for next week. In John’s case, it’s all the people he’s feeding.

Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.


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