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Obama Defies Republicans, Lays Out Immigration Policy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama made his move last night. Today, he heads out to sell it.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The president is altering U.S. immigration policy through executive action. He will discuss that policy in Las Vegas, which takes him to a state with a large Latino population.

INSKEEP: He's visiting a school, which is relevant here. The president offered temporary legal status to millions of immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens. The lives of many children may be affected.

RATH: We're hearing other details of the president's action throughout this morning. We're also tracking the politics. In a speech last night, the president spoke to Republicans who warned him not to do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

RATH: It turns out that passing a bill is among the possible responses on the Republicans' list. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: To be clear, Republicans in Congress do not like this.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: I think the president is making a big mistake.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I don't think it's constitutional. I don't think this is the way you should govern.

SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: You don't start out by poking your finger in the eye of the people you're supposed to work with.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: That's just now not how our democracy works.

REPRESENTATIVE MARLIN STUTZMAN: I think the president is hurting his own party, and I think he's hurting any chance of working together with Congress.

KEITH: Those were Republican Senators Susan Collins, John McCain, Lamar Alexander, House Speaker John Boehner and Marlin Stutzman, a Republican congressman from Indiana. He says his party is still sorting through how to respond.

STUTZMAN: We've been trying to figure out what leverage we have, and we're all find it very difficult to actually stop the president here in the next two months.

KEITH: That is during the lame-duck session of Congress while Democrats still control the Senate and while the GOP majority in the House is narrow enough that Democratic votes are often needed for big pieces of legislation. Most congressional Republicans, including Stutzman, have ruled out the idea of a government shutdown, and instead, many are saying things like this.

STUTZMAN: I think we should pass our own immigration bills - you know, respond with conservative immigration policy that Republicans agree on.

KEITH: Now conservative immigration legislation isn't what the Senate passed in 2013 or what President Obama had in mind when he said pass this bill. In the flurry of press releases and rapid responses after the president's speech, there were plenty of references to the rule of law and overstepping the Constitution and not letting this stand. But many Republicans also expressed concern that this action isn't a permanent solution, that it is incomplete and temporary. Lindsey Graham is a Republican Senator from South Carolina.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: It will not solve the problem. It will fall way short of what we need as a nation to solve the problem. It'll be millions of people left out. The border will not be secured and the legal immigration system will be still substantially broken.

KEITH: Graham was one of the Republican cosponsors of the Senate's comprehensive immigration overhaul bill. The House hasn't taken it up and doesn't intend to. Graham spoke to reporters before the president's speech. He said that as Republicans take control of the Senate, his party has an obligation to try and fix the immigration system through legislation. Threatening government shutdowns or talking about impeachment would be a mistake, he says.

GRAHAM: There is no reason that we should behave like a third grader because he does. At the end of the day, we should pass a bill - a series of bills - that fixes a broken immigration system.

KEITH: That is easier said than done. Mitch McConnell, who will soon be the Senate majority leader, pledged on the Senate floor yesterday Republicans would respond to the president's action in the new year. Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador told NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED he thinks the Senate should block all of the president's nominations.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: So there would be no hearing from the new attorney general. There will be no hearing on judges. There will be no hearing on anything that this president wants and that he needs. I think that would be one action that we can take immediately.

KEITH: Immediately, that is, when the Republicans take over the Senate in January and unite the Congress under one party - one party determined to resist President Obama and his latest executive action. Tamara Keith, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.