President Trump's birthright citizenship surprise puts GOP candidates in a tough spot


President Trump’s plan to end birthright citizenship has tossed a grenade into the final stretch of the midterm elections, roiling centrist Republicans and further endangering a House majority already at risk of slipping away.

While Trump’s proposal could boost Senate GOP candidates and earned applause from allies such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), others worry it could hurt the party’s chances in key suburban swing districts — critical territory to retaining the House.

Trump’s call to change the Constitution via executive order also struck a discordant note with a GOP conference that filed court briefs in a lawsuit against former President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

“Well, you obviously cannot do that. You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told Lexington, Ky., radio station WVLK. “We didn’t like it when Obama tried changing immigration laws via executive action, and obviously as conservatives, we believe in the Constitution.”

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who supported immigration reform efforts this summer and is locked in a tough reelection battle in his Miami-area district, blasted Trump over the proposed move.

“Birthright citizenship is protected by the Constitution, so no @realDonaldTrump you can’t end it by executive order,” Curbelo tweeted. “What we really need is broad immigration reform that makes our country more secure and reaffirms our wonderful tradition as a nation of immigrants.”

Trump’s vow seemed aimed at stoking his base, but the reaction from Republicans indicated they are increasingly worried about how the fight to retain their House majority is going.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.), one of the most vulnerable GOP lawmakers, panned Trump’s plan while skirting direct criticism of Trump. Her race is now considered “lean Democratic” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and a Democratic-aligned PAC canceled its remaining $800,000 in scheduled TV ads in a sign of growing confidence.

It’s possible Trump’s proposal could help GOP Senate candidates in states such as North Dakota and Montana, where Republicans are trying to gain seats. But it could be detrimental to other Senate GOP candidates such as Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada or Gov. Rick Scott in Florida.

Scott, who is in a tight race with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), didn’t answer a question about the issue at a news conference Tuesday. His office later sent out a statement saying he needed to fully review the proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was silent about the issue Tuesday.

Trump’s proposal is just the latest escalation of his hard-line immigration rhetoric, which has ramped up in the final weeks before Election Day.

The president said in an interview with Axios that he planned to have an executive order drafted that would terminate birthright citizenship for babies of noncitizens who are born on U.S. soil. The president said he already ran the idea by his legal counsel and that “it will happen,” though he did not offer a timeline.

“It was always told to me that you needed a constitutional amendment. Guess what? You don’t,” Trump told Axios.

Some House Republicans accused Trump of hurting his own party with the remarks.

“We all know challenges of suburban R’s,” tweeted retiring Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.). “So now POTUS, out of nowhere, brings birthright citizenship up. Besides being basic tenet of America, it’s political malpractice.”

Trump is barnstorming the country in the final week before the election, but his schedule suggests a focus on the Senate, with stops in Florida, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and Indiana.

House Republicans fighting to limit their losses are sure to see candidates confronted with questions about their positions on Trump’s birthright citizenship plan, putting centrists in a tough position.

“I believe in the Constitution and don’t think this works,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said in a statement gently pushing back at Trump.

“What we need to do is fix the broken border through a wall and technology,” said Reed, whose race is rated as “likely Republican.”

“At the same time, I appreciate the president trying to solve the problem, but believe the best way is to take action in Congress to secure the border and then leave it to the people on this through a constitutional amendment to address the birthright concern,” he said.

Reed was one of 23 Republicans who signed a discharge petition that would have forced floor action on a series of immigration bills this summer if it had enough signatures.

The effort was led by centrist Republicans like Curbelo who were worried about their reelection chances, especially after Trump rescinded an Obama-era program protecting immigrants who came to the country illegally as children.

Endangered Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), the daughter of Haitian immigrants and one of the discharge petition signers, pushed back against Trump’s proposed executive order.

“I have always opposed Presidential attempts to change immigration law unilaterally,” Love said in a statement. “The Constitution gives Congress, not the President, the power to ‘establish a uniform rule of naturalization’ and the 14th Amendment makes the conditions of citizenship clear: individuals born in this country are citizens. The Executive cannot unilaterally change those facts.”

Another petition backer, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), also came out against the plan.

“I strongly disagree with the proposed executive order. As a Member of Congress, I take an oath to support the United States Constitution,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement.

Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who is aiming to move up the leadership ladder, expressed openness to the proposal and praised the president for his effort, though he did not weigh in on whether he thinks the plan is constitutional.

“I’m glad that the president is pursuing all the options that are available to him,” Scalise told Fox News. “I’d like to see us, again, get back to rule of law.”

But top conservatives, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and former chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is running for Speaker, did not weigh in.

In the Senate, Trump’s proposal appeared to receive a warmer reception from some members.

Graham enthusiastically embraced the idea and quickly announced his own plans to introduce similar legislation.

“Finally, a president willing to take on this absurd policy of birthright citizenship,” Graham said in a string of tweets. “I’ve always supported comprehensive immigration reform — and at the same time — the elimination of birthright citizenship.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is facing a surprisingly competitive challenge from Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), also voiced support for eliminating birthright citizenship.

Cruz told The Dallas Morning News that birthright citizenship encourages people to break the law.

“Indeed, there’s a practice known as birth tourism, where women who are in their eighth or ninth month of pregnancy come to America on a tourist visa specifically to give birth in the United States,” he said.

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