House Republicans voted Wednesday to block President Obama's immigration plans and end an existing program that has deferred deportation for 500,000 young immigrants called "dreamers," attaching the restrictions to a must-pass funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security.
The 236-191 vote was seen as an aggressive attack on Obama's immigration policies that risks temporarily shutting down the DHS. But the legislation's prospects in the Senate are uncertain because even some conservatives are queasy about using the Homeland Security Department as leverage in the immigration battle.
Tensions rose as the package was swiftly approved after a long and heated floor debate. Democrats blasted the GOP as anti-immigrant, but Republicans argued they were acting on behalf of American voters who wanted them to rein in presidential overreach.
Both sides acknowledged the end game could shutter the Homeland Security Department because the immigration restrictions were attached to the department's $39.7-billion annual funding bill, essentially daring Obama to veto the package if it passes the Senate. Funding for the department runs out next month.
"The president's overreach is an affront to the rule of law and the Constitution itself," said Speaker John A. Boehner in a closing speech on the House floor. "Well, enough is enough. When we said this would not stand, we meant it."
Ten Republicans opposed their party's effort, most of them preferring a more measured approach on immigration. Two Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the package, but most condemned it.
"Not funding DHS is dumb and dangerous," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who has been a champion for immigration reforms and argued the Republican package "would break apart families."
Obama has threatened to veto the House bill, leaving it little chance of becoming law.
On Wednesday, administration officials blasted Republicans for creating a standoff that was undermining security at the border and elsewhere, while threatening to send long-standing border enforcement policy into disarray.
Domestic Policy Advisor Director Cecilia Munoz argued that House bill left law enforcement with no way to prioritize deportations for the millions of people in the country illegally.
"You're not distinguishing between people among the 11 million who were brought here as children and have grown up in this country and have known no other country and people who have been convicted of serious crimes," she said. "They are equally subject to deportation according to the vote that the House took today which just doesn't make any sense from a long-term perspective."
Munoz would not say whether the White House would accept some smaller tweaks to the president's action as part of a compromise.
"There's a long way to go in this process," she said. "But obviously the priority of this administration is to fund the department and there's no reason to tinker with executive actions at all."
The White House said the stopgap measure in place already was holding up implementing recommended upgrades to White House security, as well as the availability of Federal Emergency Management Agency grants.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske argued that the temporary budget made it difficult to maintain and repair the technology used at the border.
"If we're going to be effective … we not only need that budget, we needed to have an immigration system that was broken fixed. And that's what the president's actions do," Kerlikowske said.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has warned Congress not to turn his department into a "political football" at a time when the nation remains on alert following the terrorist attacks in Paris.
But rank-and-file House Republicans, who pressured their leaders for a bold response after Obama announced his actions to defer deportations for up to 5 million immigrants here illegally, said any interruption in funds would be Obama's fault.
"If Homeland Security shuts down, it's because the president vetoes the budget because he can't get his amnesty for illegal aliens," said Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), a former prosecutor.
Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had hoped to avoid crisis-governing after their party took control of Congress earlier this month. But now the immigration debate is expected to play a large role as Republicans head for a three-day retreat to map their agenda in Pennsylvania.
Last year's turn of events left them almost no alternative. Republican lawmakers refused to fully fund the government in December unless they could restrict Obama's immigration actions. They withheld the Homeland Security funding -- setting up this early showdown.
Boehner worked early in the year to devise a package that would please his most conservative troops, even at the risk of losing lawmakers from California and other states who take a more measured approach to immigration issues due to their large Latino and minority populations.
One amendment that was easily approved Wednesday would prevent using fees collected from immigrants or other federal funds to start the deferrals announced by Obama in 2014. The president's program would benefit the parents of children born in the U.S. and other groups. Some would gain legal work permits. More than 1 million are in California.
Another amendment faced a stiffer political hurdle, and was only narrowly approved, 218-209. It would essentially end the president's 2012 temporary deportation relief for more than 500,000 young people, called "dreamers," who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. No Democrats voted for the measure and 26 Republicans refused to join their party's plan. Many young people in the two-year program must reapply this year, but the measure would not allow their fees or other federal funds to process their applications.
Because some of the immigration programs begin in February, Republicans were eager to prevent their launch.
The Senate is not expected to take up the issue for several weeks, and many party leaders hope the House's early start will provide enough time for a compromise measure to emerge before Homeland Security funds run out Feb. 28.