Washington: US President Barack Obama will use a prime-time television speech on Thursday to present the biggest reprieve for undocumented immigrants in a generation, even as his order falls short of goals embraced by legislation the US Senate passed last year.

Obama’s unilateral action, circumventing a deadlocked Congress, promises to remove the immediate risk of deportation for 4 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants and initiate a showdown with congressional Republicans. The debate may set battle lines for the 2016 presidential campaign and shape the political loyalties of fast-growing ethnic groups for years to come.

Republican congressional leaders accused the president of exceeding his authority. They searched for a response to Obama that satisfies lawmakers, while avoiding a shutdown of the federal government that could hurt the party’s image.

House speaker John Boehner of Ohio is fielding demands that include suing the president, censuring him, threatening to cut off all government funding or, perhaps the most likely response, choking off the portion of funds he would need to implement his orders.

Obama and Democrats would reap the political benefits of another government shutdown, said Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole, a Boehner ally.

‘Upset’ lawmakers

“We have every right to be mad. But when you’re upset and mad doing what the person that provoked you wants you to do is usually not a very smart way to go," Cole told reporters. “The smart thing is to find another way to deal with the president, because he’s trying to pick a bar fight."

The broader political stakes were underscored by the Obama administration’s plan to roll out the announcement: a rare prime-time address to the nation via cable TV news channels, Spanish-language Univision, and other outlets. That will be followed by a trip to Nevada, a presidential battleground state.

Nevada’s electorate has increasingly trended Democratic as its Hispanic population grows and the ethnic group’s political allegiances shift more heavily toward the president’s party.

Obama is hosting a private dinner on Wednesday night at the White House with congressional Democrats to lay out the strategy.

Between 4 million and 5 million undocumented immigrants will be protected from deportation for the rest of Obama’s presidency, according to a person familiar with the plan. That exceeds the nearly 2.7 million given permanent legal status by the 1986 immigration law signed by Republican president Ronald Reagan.

Senate Bill

The bipartisan Senate legislation that stalled in the Republican-led House would have initially granted legal status to 8 million immigrants in the country illegally, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Obama’s executive actions would give temporary visas to undocumented immigrants whose children were born in the US, according to people familiar with the proposal. The plan would expand eligibility for his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme that has given protection to 600,000 child immigrants.

The planned action, which the White House says is a partial fix for the US immigration system, may improve Obama’s standing with Hispanics after he presided over a record number of deportations and damage his chances of working with Republicans in Congress on other issues.

The idea behind his strategy is to cover categories of immigrants that would be politically difficult for Republicans to oppose, because that would involve separating parents from their children, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the matter.

‘Resist’ urge

Anna Navarro, former chief Hispanic adviser to Arizona senator John McCain, said Republicans “need to resist the urge of taking their toys and going home from the playground because Obama stuck his tongue out at them." A fight over keeping parents with their children won’t be a winning political argument for Republicans, she said.

By centering his plan on family unification, Obama is seeking to drive a wedge in the Republican Party, which includes lawmakers who support what the president is doing even if they oppose his use of presidential powers to achieve it.

Obama, in a White House video posted on Wednesday, said his speech on Thursday at 8pm Washington time will explain how he’s tackling an issue that’s been allowed “to fester far too long." He’ll then fly on 21 November to Las Vegas to discuss his immigration actions at a school, the president said.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said Obama was abusing his power and should have worked more with Republicans.

“There is nobody who’s abused the authority to issue executive orders more than the current occupant of the White House," he said. Obama is undermining Republican support for “common-sense immigration bills," he said.

People’s will

Even some of the most outspoken critics of Obama’s immigration stance expressed caution over risking a federal shutdown in order to reprimand him.

Congress must approve funds by 11 December to keep the government open or trigger an interruption similar to last year, when Republican demands to defund the president’s health-care law led to a 16-day partial shutdown.

Iowa Representative Steve King, who once called for an electric fence along the US-Mexico border, said on Wednesday he wants legislation expressing disapproval of Obama’s actions or to censure him before considering a fight over funding.

“I only want to do the minimum—the minimum—to put the president back in his constitutional boundaries," said King. “I’m always looking for a better alternative," he said in response to a question about shutting down the government.

Retroactive action

Earlier, Boehner and his allies said they’re reviewing alternatives to using a funding bill to fight the executive action, including retroactively canceling money in 2015 for any action taken by Obama.

Dan Stein, president of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington-based group that opposes legalization for undocumented immigrants, said the planned unilateral actions show the president is “way out of control."

“This is a man who doesn’t care what the rule of law says," Stein said. “At some point along the way, there will be public support for discussion of impeachment."

Public opinion

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Wednesday, 48% of Americans oppose Obama taking executive action on immigration while 38% support it. About 14% have no opinion or are unsure. The poll was conducted during 14-17 November and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Obama will also expand a programme that gives work permits for up to 29 months to foreign graduates of US universities with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, according to the people, who requested anonymity before a formal announcement. That provides more workers to fill high-tech jobs.

The administration already broadened eligibility for the programme in 2012 by increasing the qualifying fields of study.

The executive action will include enforcement measures and changes to legal-immigration procedures, the people said.

The president is expected to stop short of including the parents of children brought to the US illegally, called Dreamers, the people said. Senate Democrats were pressing the White House to cover this group under the current plan.

Labeling amnesty

Republicans aren’t united on the immigration issue. Some say the party must take steps to ease its stance against undocumented immigrants while others consider them lawbreakers who don’t deserve what many of them label amnesty.

National demographic shifts, particularly in competitive states such as Nevada and Florida, make the support of Hispanic voters important to both political parties.

Some Republicans are vowing to try to block the executive action, arguing that it’s an unconstitutional power grab that will poison the environment for bipartisan compromise in the new Congress, which they will control.

A group of at least 60 House Republicans is pushing to use a government funding bill to deny the president the money needed to implement his plan.

Not ‘appropriate’

The White House began sharing policy and messaging plans on Tuesday with outside groups and Democrats on Capitol Hill. In addition to arguing that Obama has the legal authority to revamp the immigration system, the White House says Congress can step in at any time with legislation.

“There is a very simple solution to the perception that somehow the president is exercising too much executive authority, and that’s for Congress to pass a bipartisan bill to permanently fix the system," according to White House talking points, which were obtained by Bloomberg. Bloomberg

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