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POLITICS: PennAve

Political landmines ahead for Democrats as Obama considers executive action on immigration

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Should President Obama take executive action on immigration prior to November, it risks riling up voters in a key midterm election year — and Senate Democrats are well aware of the hazard.

According to a Democratic strategist with longtime ties to Capitol Hill, Sen. Michael Bennet, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, earlier this year urged the White House to postpone any executive actions as long as possible.

“[Bennet] was concerned that issuing these immigration-related executive orders would have a negative impact on some of his incumbents up for re-election,” the strategist said. Bennet urged caution on the issue and suggested that the deportation problem is not as bad as some people have suggested.

Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for Bennet, said Bennet had not directly urged the president to hold off on executive actions "in any format." In his role as a senator, not DSCC chair, Bennet supports action on immigration.

The White House elected not to provide comment, and the DSCC declined to comment on the record.

Now, vulnerable Democrats have all but given up on the president holding off. With less than three months until Election Day and with Democratic Senate candidates no less imperiled than they were when Bennet allegedly spoke to the White House, the president has indicated he will move forward with plans to use his executive authority — in spite of potentially grave political repercussions for Democratic candidates, and at the worst possible moment.

“While I will continue to push House Republicans to drop the excuses and act — and I hope their constituents will, too — America cannot wait forever for them to act,” Obama said in June. “I’m beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress.”

Of course, Senate Democratic incumbents aren’t the only ones whispering in the president’s ear: At the same time, progressive activists have been pushing hard for Obama to circumvent Congress and take action to stop or curb deportations and expand legal status for some immigrants, among the menu of options Obama is said to be considering.

The president is also surely aware of how tackling the problem on his own might boost his own lagging approval ratings, which perhaps could help Democrats in the long term. More immediately, however, executive action on illegal immigration, one of the most divisive and important issues of this election cycle, according to public polling, could further elevate an already tough issue for some vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect. Executive action on immigration, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring predicted, “would inject adrenaline into an electorate already eager to send [Obama] a message of disapproval.”

“Executive amnesty would be the political equivalent of nuclear explosion for Democratic candidates like [incumbent Sens.] Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan, Mark Pryor and Jeanne Shaheen,” Dayspring said. “The only conceivable explanation for the president to take such an unprecedented action would be that he has already conceded the Democrats' Senate majority.”

The issue has already started to play prominently in some of those races, illustrating its potential potency. Republicans Scott Brown of New Hampshire and Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have run immigration-related ads against Shaheen and Pryor, respectively.

Further complicating the outlook for Democrats is uncertainty about what action the president might take. On one end of the spectrum, Obama could decide to halt deportations, but he also has many options short of that.

Democrats expect vulnerable senators might best respond to such executive actions as they did with stricter regulations on emissions proposed this year by the Environmental Protection Agency. In light of the proposed rules, senators like Landrieu criticized the president for taking action that, she said, should have been left to Congress.

And Democrats will likely also blame intransigence by House Republicans, who have refused to vote on the immigration reform plan approved by the Senate.

“The decision of Republicans in Washington to play politics with comprehensive immigration reform is more evidence that their strategy of winning back the Senate on the Affordable Care Act alone has failed,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

On the flip side, some Democrats in competitive races might stand to benefit if the president takes action on immigration prior to the election: namely, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado.

“Latinos are an important part of the electorate here, and Colorado in general is a forward-looking state when it comes to this issue,” said Chris Harris, a spokesman for Udall.

Udall has even urged the president explicitly to exercise his executive authority on the issue. "If Republicans in Congress won't act on behalf of Colorado families and businesses or the millions of immigrants living in the shadows, then the president should take action to stop tearing apart families whose only crime is seeking a better life for themselves," Udall told a Spanish-language radio station in Denver in June.

It’s unlikely that Udall’s appeal, like those from Bennet urging the opposite, will sway the president’s decision. But, to many Democrats, that’s not much of a surprise.

“I don't know that this White House necessarily listens to anybody,” said one Democratic operative with Senate campaign ties. “I really don’t.”

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Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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