The Politics of Succession: Who Will Replace Secretary Napolitano?

Official Washington likes nothing better than a good political horserace, but these are few and far between in the summer doldrums of a non-election year, so it was like manna from heaven when Janet Napolitano announced her impending resignation – effective this September – from her long-held post as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Suddenly, the city was abuzz with conjecture about who was ahead in the race to succeed Ms. Napolitano. [See DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano Stepping Down: Now What?, MurthyBlog, 18.Jul.2013.]

Now speculation has turned to the question of how this important personnel change will affect immigration reform. The question of succession takes on special piquancy, with CIR facing delays in the House of Representatives – if not outright obstruction – by GOP members who want a hermetically sealed southwestern border before they will agree to vote for immigration reform, in any form.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post put it this way:

“The emerging line of thought is that, if Obama nominates an outsider with impeccable law enforcement bona fides – who would obviously be subject to Republican questioning at a [Senate] confirmation hearing – it could take some of the steam out of GOP arguments that the Obama administration can’t be trusted to enforce border security, one of the catch-all Republican reasons for opposing reform.” [See How Janet Napolitano’s Resignation Could Help Immigration Reform, by Greg Sargent, Washington Post, 12.Jul.2013.]

Border security is not just a House GOP bugbear; recall that Senate Republicans pushed hard to add $40-odd billion in border security funding to their chamber’s bill, before falling in line to pass it. Even among Senate Republicans, there were some who saw Janet Napolitano as the symbol of the Obama administration’s putative failure to secure the border, even though it was Napolitano who oversaw a massive and unprecedented run-up in border-security activity – and spending – topping even the Bush administration in apprehending and deporting record numbers of unauthorized immigrants. [See Illegal Immigration Hits New Low: One Less Hurdle for CIR? MurthyBlog, 29.Sep.2013.]

The border security lobby of the GOP is still upset with Napolitano because of her enforcement triage policies, which target dangerous criminals and repeat immigration offenders for apprehension and removal, instead of taking a more indiscriminate enforcement approach and arresting anyone and everyone who is here illegally. In a written statement, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) recently characterized this as “consistent disrespect for the rule of law,” arguing that, “the most significant obstacle to immigration reform remains President Obama’s selective enforcement of the law.” [See Napolitano Departure in Fall Likely to Add Wrinkle to Immigration Overhaul Efforts, by Steven T. Dennis and Rob Margetta, Roll Call, 12.Jul.2013.]

This is what the President is up against when he chooses a new DHS Secretary, in the thick of a yet-to-be-resolved debate on border security. Given the recent fight in the Senate over presidential appointees, the Obama administration is sure to want a candidate who will not antagonize the GOP border lobby, and risk provoking a confirmation battle in the Senate; but Mr. Obama also can’t afford to nominate someone so hell-bent on enforcement that he risks alienating important constituencies of his own. Stay tuned.

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