PHILADELPHIA — President Barack Obama vowed to House Democrats on Thursday night that he would “happily” veto any legislation that would “compound” the country’s immigration problems — posing yet another challenge to Republican efforts to pass a Homeland Security spending bill by next month’s deadline.
“If rather than try to solve the broken immigration system they compound the problem, I’ll veto it,” the president said in a buoyant and aggressive speech at a retreat for Democratic House lawmakers in Philadelphia, echoing the feisty approach his administration has taken to dealing with the Republicans who control both ends of the Capitol. He also promised once again to veto bills that would repeal Obamacare or roll back Wall Street regulations.
Proclaiming that “America has come back,” he urged Democrats to stand proudly on the economic policies they have pursued during his time in the White House, saying that “the record shows that we were right” — despite the drubbing their party took at the polls in November.
And he called for a narrower approach to the spending cuts that are now driven by the annual sequester process, saying they should be “a scalpel and not a meat cleaver.”
“Let’s make sure we are funding the things that American families need,” he said.
Obama spoke just days before Senate Democrats are promising to filibuster a House-passed bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security while rolling back years of the president’s immigration policies, including last fall’s decision to shield potentially millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Senate Democrats are demanding a “clean” DHS bill, while conservative House Republicans have warned that no such bill could pass their chamber.
DHS funding is due to run out Feb. 27, but POLITICO reported Wednesday that some top House Republicans believe a funding lapse may not be so worrisome because most of the department’s employees are considered essential and would stay on the job — though their paychecks would be withheld.
“In other words, it’s not the end of the world if we get to that time because the national security functions will not stop,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said at the time. While Diaz-Balart said Congress shouldn’t ignore the funding deadline, Obama repeatedly seized on the “not the end of the world” line Thursday night.
“You think we can afford to have our Department of Homeland Security not functioning because of political games in Washington?” Obama asked.
As for Obamacare, the president said: “I hear Republicans are holding their 50th or 60th vote to repeal or undermine the Affordable Care Act. I’ve lost count at this point. But if that bill actually ever reached my desk, I would happily veto it.”
House Republicans are scheduled to vote next week on legislation that would repeal the president’s signature health care law.
Obama also mocked Republicans for “starting to sound pretty Democratic” in their messages about poverty and the middle class, including a not-so-veiled swipe at former — and possibly future — presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“Even though their policies haven’t quite caught up yet, their rhetoric is starting to sound pretty Democratic,” Obama said. “We have a former presidential candidate on the other side and [who is] suddenly deeply concerned about poverty. That’s great, let’s go. Let’s do something about it.”
Obama went further during a question-and-answer session held with members behind closed doors. He said Republicans “don’t have an agenda” in a response to a question from Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) on infrastructure, and joked that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “took care” of the White House proposal to tax 529 college savings accounts, according to sources in the room.
And he asked lawmakers for time to negotiate a deal with Iran overs its nuclear facilities.
“My simple request, which I do not think is unreasonable, is for Congress to let this play out for two to three months,” Obama said, according to sources.
Obama also took a question on his State of the Union request for the ability to fast-track trade deals. He told members concerned about trade to “keep your powder a little dry” and “be strategic.”
Earlier Thursday night, in his speech to the Democrats, he strongly repeated his pledge to campaign on the “middle-class economics” policies he had outlined in the State of the Union — policies that he said have already helped rebuild the economy from a deep recession.
“It’s pretty rare when you have two visions [and] a vigorous debate, and then you test who’s right,” Obama said. “And the record shows that we were right.”
He added: “You and I together made some really tough choices, sometimes some politically unpopular choices, and America has come back.” Obama also challenged Democrats not to back away from their political achievements — arguing that if the party had been more forceful in touting the economic benefits Americans have seen, Democrats may have been more successful at the polls.
“I will just say, obviously, we were all disappointed in the outcome of the last election. We’ve heard a lot of reasons for it and I’m happy to take on some of the blame,” Obama said. But he urged lawmakers to “stand up straight and proud and say, ‘Yes, we believe everybody in this country should have health insurance.’”
“We believe in middle class economics and we don’t apologize,” he said.
But Obama acknowledged that middle-class families are still feeling the pinch from job losses and stagnant wages lingering from the economic downturn.
“What everybody here understands is the ground that middle class families lost … still needs to be made up,” Obama said. “As much as we should appreciate the progress that’s been made, it shouldn’t be a cause for complacency. Because we’ve got more work to do.”