Does comprehensive immigration reform have a chance of becoming law in 2013?
This is the question all pundits are asking themselves this particular week, so I thought I'd give my thoughts, here at the beginning of what will likely be a long and drawn-out debate. I start out optimistic, personally, and put the chance that sweeping, inclusive immigration reform will happen at a healthy 80-85 percent.
As I said, that's pretty optimistic. It will be subject to change, as the glaciated wheels of the legislative process clank and clunk forward, ever-so-slowly, over the upcoming months. With the twists and turns of Congress which await, I'm sure there'll be times when I offer up much more pessimistic predictions of actual passage, but for now I'm comfortable with 80-85 percent.
There's a reason for my rosy-colored outlook, and that reason was alluded to when the "Gang of Eight" brought forth their plans, yesterday. The Democrats have always wanted to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but right now the Republicans need to pass an immigration reform bill. Their party's future pretty much depends on it, at this point. Which is why I think a fairly good bill will emerge with a very healthy majority in the Senate, and that eventually John Boehner will chuck aside the "Hastert Rule" and allow a vote in which a few dozen Republicans help the overwhelming majority of Democrats to pass the bill.
Of course, I could be wrong. There are more ways to derail a bill than you can shake a stick at, up on Capitol Hill. And there are certainly Republicans who would disagree that they "need" such a bill at such a time -- and some of them will fight hard against the idea.
Just look at the timing of this week's announcements on immigration reform. President Obama scheduled an event in Las Vegas to announce his plans. Before he could get there, though, the senators jumped ahead of Obama, and gave a news conference on Monday. This, to me, shows that Marco Rubio is still annoyed at Obama pulling the rug out from under him last year on the DREAM Act. Senator Rubio doesn't just want or need an immigration reform bill to pass, to him it will be the centerpiece of his upcoming presidential run. Rubio is positioning himself as The Republican Of The Future, who is the epitome of post-racism and as such will lead the party out of the darkness to offer the hand of inclusion to a demographic group which will otherwise bury the party in national elections for the next few decades. And Rubio didn't want to get upstaged by Obama once again, which doubtlessly led to yesterday's surprise press conference.
Rubio, and a few other Republicans, are going to not just push for immigration reform, they are going to champion it. This is important, because of the "only Nixon could go to China" aspect of the problem Republicans face. Smart Republicans know they've got to change their image among Latinos. But the only way this can happen is if one of their own leads the way. Republicans cannot be seen as "following Democrats' lead" -- or, even worse, "following President Obama's lead" -- on the issue. Fixing immigration must be repackaged as a Republican idea for it to even be slightly palatable for House members (to say nothing of the base Republican voters).
Rubio might be able to successfully pull this off. Impressively, he has been busy in a flurry of media appearances -- including the hardest of the hardliners on the right. So far, he's managed to charm such righty luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, to at least give him a respectful hearing. Taking on the rabid and reactionary elements of his own party is going to be crucial for Rubio to succeed, so it's interesting to see him in such a full-fledged media blitz. Which, so far, seems to be pretty successful in at least changing the tone of the debate on the right side of the airwaves.
The biggest stumbling block any legislation will face (other than amendments which gnaw away at its core ideals, which is always an obstruction), though, will be from House members with rock-solid districts, and the Republican voters themselves. Some House Republicans are in such safe districts that it really doesn't matter how extreme their language ever gets -- they'll still get comfortably re-elected. Even Republicans in less-extreme districts know that yelling "Amnesty!" at the drop of a hat isn't going to have much of a negative effect on their own chances for re-election. Republicans have been using this anti-immigration-reform sloganeering for so long, it's reflexive for a lot of them.
The problem for people like Marco Rubio and other Republicans who are trying to change their party from the inside is that the language and the tone of a large portion of their base is even more stridently anti-immigrant than the hottest of the House Republican hotheads. This has been such a hot-button issue on the right for so many years even a president from their own party couldn't convince them to get behind an immigration reform bill, only a few years ago.
House Republicans, especially, fear a backlash from the base over the issue. They saw what happened to Democrats in the gun control fights in the 1990s, and they know that getting "primaried" by a more-extreme candidate is definitely a possibility.
Even having said all of that, though, I still see very high chances for success. If the Senate passes a bill, the pressure is going to increase on John Boehner to act. If the Senate passes a bill with a large bipartisan vote, the pressure is going to become unbearable on Boehner. He has one real route open to him to stall the matter into oblivion, and that is to pass his own "immigration reform" bill with such Draconian provisions that it'll be downright unworkable in the real world. He can then say that "this is the only thing that will pass the House" and throw it into a conference committee with the Senate, in the hopes the whole matter will just die on that particular vine.
If he can't even get enough Republicans on board with such a maneuver, however, at some point Boehner will almost certainly have to ignore the self-imposed "Hastert Rule" among Republicans (which states the Speaker will never bring up a bill that doesn't have a "majority of the majority" behind it), and bring up the Senate's bill. Democrats will only need a handful of Republican votes -- likely only two to three dozen, depending on their own defections within their ranks -- to pass the measure and put it on the president's desk.
Smart Republicans know that this is crucial to their party's chances in future national elections. Anyone that can do a simple Electoral College count can see Republican chances for taking the White House are dwindling fast if no action is taken. They need a bill to pass. They're really hoping it can pass without much anti-immigrant rhetoric, in fact, but that's likely a bridge too far to expect.
Boehner is going to wind up being the key to the whole deal. He may lose his speakership over the matter, in fact, whether he passes a bill or not. Passionate feelings still exist in the Republican Party at large over immigration, and they are not going to fade away just in the hopes of chasing some future demographic edge in electoral politics. Senator Rubio, so far, seems willing to go toe-to-toe with the most virulently anti-immigrant forces within his own party -- and, so far, he seems to be doing a great job of shifting their anger towards that dastardly President Obama and those conniving Democrats.
Which is why I'm so (perhaps "overly") hopeful. Strong forces are behind getting something done, this time around, from both sides of the aisle. Demagoguery is going to happen, but perhaps this time it can be beaten back. The fallout may be fierce in many ways, but as of this moment, I'm pegging the chances a fairly-good bill will arrive on Obama's desk at better than eight in ten.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant