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Obama’s Immigration Order Puts Big Business in an Awkward Spot

U.S. President Obama announces executive actions on immigration during nationally televised address from the White House in WashingtonU.S. President Obama announces executive actions on immigration during nationally televised address from the White House in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama will address the nation on Wednesday to announce the new Cuba policy steps.Photograph by Jim Bourg — Reuters

In the wake of President’s Obama’s sweeping immigration order, big business interests that just spent tens of millions of dollars to elect Republicans to Congress in the midterms are now sounding strangely unlike Congressional Republicans.

It’s an awkward fact of life for corporate America’s leading representatives in Washington: They prefer Republican control on Capitol Hill, invested dearly to achieve it, and pulled off a decisive victory earlier this month. And yet, on immigration reform — a top priority — they line up with Democrats who favor looser visa restrictions and a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.

Witness the biggest kahuna of them all, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group spent more than $35 million in the elections, directing 94 percent of it to helping Republicans, figures from the Center for Responsive Politics show. More than $15 million of that total boosted five GOP Senate candidates on the opposite side of the immigration debate from the Chamber itself. The business lobby isn’t a single-issue organization; instead it relies on a system that factors lawmakers’ votes on a range of issues into a score, which in turn determines their support. But in this case, the timing of the immigration action is proving inconvenient.

To be sure, Chamber president Tom Donohue’s response to Obama’s speech wasn’t a ringing endorsement: “Meaningful and lasting immigration reform can only be achieved through the enactment of bipartisan legislation,” he said in a statement posted online as soon as the President wrapped his speech. “We call upon the president and lawmakers of both parties to enact common sense measures to provide the American economy with the workers it needs at all skill levels, while better securing our borders and dealing with undocumented immigrants.” National Association of Manufacturers president Jay Timmons similarly two-stepped past the executive order, saying only that it “further underscores that congressional action is critically needed on immigration reform” after an election in which voters signaled they want leaders to “end the gridlock and address the tough issues facing this country.”

Motorola CEO Greg Brown, speaking on behalf of the Business Roundtable, at least nodded to the news. “We appreciate President Obama’s commitment to improve our immigration system,” he said, “but America’s needs can be met only through reform of our entire immigration system; executive action does not fix our broken immigration system.”

But those takes are also a far cry from the acid-laced fury that characterized the response from the GOP’s right flank on the Hill. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz compared Obama’s action to a plot to overthrow the Roman republic; Texas Rep. Lamar Smith declared that it amounted to “actually declaring war on the American people and our democracy;” Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks said the Republican response could escalate to impeachment.

Caught somewhere in between are Republican leaders, who now face the challenge of channeling the animus in their ranks into a solution without alienating the booming Hispanic voting bloc in the process (a trick they’re aiming to achieve by focusing their criticism more on the President’s means than his ends). In the immediate run, the Republican conundrum would appear to be a happy corollary for the White House. Obama’s move sticks a finger in the wound that GOP establishment poobahs tried to stitch up over the course of the election cycle. Partnering with big business interests, those leaders worked to steer more reasonable candidates through the party’s nominating process in hopes that groundwork would leave them with what they called a “governing majority” — that is, a sufficient margin of cooperative types to allow Republicans to show they can actually get things done. To prove it wasn’t for naught, they now need to put a lid on the anger on the right before it boils over into self-destructive protest measures, like another government shutdown.

But Obama’s own success in the remainder of his time in power is arguably tied up in the same bundle. Following the two previous elections during his presidency, he chose conciliation. After losing badly in the 2010 midterms, Obama accepted the Republican argument that a grand bargain on the deficit should take precedence and went hunting in vain for one. Strengthened after his 2012 reelection, he cut a deal with Republicans that made 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent without securing the infrastructure spending that had been a cornerstone of his jobs plan.

The immigration move reveals a president finally steeled for a confrontation. Yet one of the odd things about the final election of Obama’s presidency is that to the extent his Congressional agenda still includes chasing big wins, it’s strikingly similar to the corporate wish-list. Beyond a legally-enshrined immigration overhaul that frees up more visas for foreign workers, it centers on passing new free-trade agreements and reworking the tax code to lower rates by clearing out loopholes — goals shared broadly by Republican leaders. Whether those measures advance will turn on how his politically explosive immigration order sets the stage.