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'Simple Common Sense': Jeh Johnson Defends Executive Action on Immigration

“There’s a right way to do this, and there’s a wrong way,” said GOP committee chairman Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas in his opening remarks.

Immigration took center stage on Capitol Hill as the legislative bodies reconvened for the final stretch of the Congressional year.

In the first of two hearings Tuesday focusing on President Barack Obama's executive action, Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson defended the Obama administration’s decision to grant deportation relief to some undocumented immigrants as “simple common sense,” even as GOP lawmakers pilloried the policy as a dangerous power grab.

“The reality is that, given our limited resources, these people are not -- and have not been for years -- prioritizes for removal,” Johnson said in testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee. “It’s time we acknowledge that and encourage them to be held accountable. This is simple common sense.”

But while Republicans emphasized that immigration reform is an important issue that must be addressed, GOP lawmakers decried the president’s action as dangerous and damaging to the balance of power in Washington.

“There’s a right way to do this, and there’s a wrong way,” said committee chairman Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas in his opening remarks. “And unfortunately, the president has done it the wrong way.”

Johnson responded by saying he's "fully comfortable" that the executive branch has the authority to implement the executive action.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was just tapped by his colleagues to lead the feisty Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Johnson if he thought the president changed the law. After Johnson said the president did not change the law, Chaeffetz played a clip of President Obama speaking in Las Vegas about his executive order where he said he "change(d) the law."

When Chaffetz called out Johnson for contradicting the president, Johnson said, "Someone plays me an eight word excerpt from a broader speech, I know to be suspicious. That was very nice."

McCaul contended that the announcement itself could cause a surge in illegal immigration. Johnson countered that specific targeting of undocumented immigrants who have recently entered the country illegally will curb any spike. He promoted the expansion of the department's detention capabilities, including a new facility in Texas, which he says will be directed at detaining people who came to the U.S. in the past year.

The executive action announced by President Barack Obama last month would relieve up to 4.1 million undocumented immigrants – including the parents of U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident children – from the threat of deportation. To become eligible for a three-year renewable relief period and work authorization, those parents will have to register, submit biometric data, pass background checks and pay fees.

Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama bemoaned the fact that eligible immigrants could potentially receive Social Security and Medicare because workers will now be paying into the system. He called it "irresponsible" to "burden" the system.

In a speech announcing the decision, Obama said that the federal government would refocus resources to prioritize the deportation of those undocumented immigrants who are threats to the nation’s security. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children,” he said.

The clash over immigration has roiled Capitol Hill and may have complicated lawmakers' efforts to pass a bill to fund the federal government beyond a December 11 deadline.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell ruled out the possibility of immigration forcing a government shutdown, saying Tuesday that "there'll be no more government shutdowns."

After a meeting with his caucus, House Speaker John Boehner offered few details on how the Republicans would proceed. He said a "variety of options" exist but that no decisions have been made.

“It’s a serious threat to our system of government. And frankly we have limited options and limited abilities to deal with it directly," Boehner noted.

Also on the Hill Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing entitled “President Obama's Executive Overreach on Immigration."

- Carrie Dann and Leigh Ann Caldwell