Reviewing Immigration Reform's Chances

[ Posted Thursday, January 30th, 2014 – 17:22 UTC ]

This column is going to be the equivalent to what situation comedy television programs call a "clip show." This is when the producers get so lazy that they spend an entire show just essentially presenting their "greatest clips," only loosely held together by original scriptwriting. Saves time, saves money, and even though the audiences hate it, well, it gives everyone else a break. This is all in the way of informing you that most of this column will be excerpts from columns written roughly a year ago, on the subject of what the chances of immigration reform passing Congress truly were (and, at the end, now are).

What prompted this column (clippy though it may be) was the breaking news that House Republicans have leaked a two-page document to the press outlining their priorities in new immigration bills. The first thing they stress is the plurality of that last word -- as in "bills," and not "bill." Republicans have, of late, developed a bizarre and unreasonable fear over legislation that they consider long and hard to read. They score some sort of political points with their base by opposing such bills, which is inexplicable outside of that base, so we'll just accept it as fact so we can all then move along. The House Republicans will have lots of little bills rather than one big bill -- that's a given, at this point.

The second thing which has emerged from the recent Republican navel-gazing retreat is that they have (so far) masterfully rebranded one of the key provisions of the Senate comprehensive immigration bill. It is no longer a "path to citizenship," it is now a "special path to citizenship." This is somewhat insidious, because "special" is not exactly a neutral word in American politics (think: "special interests" to see what I mean -- more on this tomorrow, in our weekly column on political framing). There's a third insidious little item in the House Republicans' positioning paper, but I'll get to that in due course.

First, let's review where we've been. When President Obama's second term began, I handicapped what I thought he could get done. Second in this list was immigration reform:

The second big agenda item is immigration reform. President Obama holds virtually all the cards, politically, on this one. All Republicans who can read either demographics or polling numbers know full well that this may be their party's last chance not to go the way of the Whigs. Their support among Latinos is dismal, and even that's putting it politely. Some Republicans think they have come up with a perfect solution on how to defuse the issue, but they are going to be proven sadly mistaken in the end, I believe. The Republican plan will be announced by Senator Marco Rubio at some point, and it will seem to mirror the Democratic plan -- with one key difference. Republicans -- even the ones who know their party has to do something on the immigration problem -- are balking at including a "path to citizenship" for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already in America.

The Republicans are trying to have their cake and eat it too -- and it's not going to work. "Sure," they say, "we'll give some sort of papers to these folks, let them stay, and even let them work... but there's no need to give them the hope of ever becoming a full citizen." This just isn't going to be good enough, though. There are essentially two things citizens can do which green card holders cannot: serve on juries, and vote. The Republicans are not worried about tainted juries, in case that's not clear enough.

Republicans will bend over backwards in an effort to convince Latinos that their proposal will work out just fine for everyone. Latinos, however, aren't stupid. They know that being denied any path to citizenship equals an effort to minimize their voice on the national political stage. Which is why, as I said, Obama holds all the cards in this fight. Because this is the one issue in his agenda which Republicans also have a big vested interest in making happen. Obama and the Democrats will, I believe, hold firm on their insistence on a path to citizenship, and I think a comprehensive immigration bill will likely pass some time this year, perhaps before the summer congressional break. The path to citizenship it includes will be long, expensive, and difficult (Republicans will insist on at least that), but it will be there.

You'll note that not much has changed in that assessment, with the exception of the timetable (which was laughably optimistic). Speaking of laughably optimistic, I revisted the subject less than a week later, opening with:

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.

Hoo boy, those were some rosy-tinted glasses, eh? Self-depreciation aside, though, I did say a few more-realistic things in the article, including:

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).

Later on, I zeroed in on the real obstacle:

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.

. . .

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.

Then, exactly one year ago, I revisited the topic to delve into some history about the politicization of immigration in America. While most of this article was purely historical, it began with:

Republicans are offering up a splendid display of doublethink on the issue, in order to be able to say: "Hah! We were right all along," no matter what happens. Republicans make two accusations, which are completely contradictory (which doesn't seem to bother them at all), that the whole thing is just a cynical political game: (1) Obama and the Democrats want to legalize 11 million people who will then immediately become reliable Democratic voters, and/or (2) Obama and the Democrats will somehow find a way to scuttle the deal because they really don't want to pass any law, they just want to use the issue to beat up Republicans, in election after election. As I mentioned, no matter what happens, they'll be able to fall back on one of these tropes. Democrats, however, are using the second of these (with slight modification) to explain their own wariness: Republicans just want to be able to say: "We tried something" during the next election, and they will find a way to scuttle the deal in the end while blaming Democrats for the legislative failure.

A few months later, I refined this outlook. At this point, I was predicting that the Senate bill would pass with the final vote tally being "at least 70 or 75 in favor, and I could even see it higher than 80." I then moved on to predictions for what the House would do:

This is where I get more pessimistic. The House will be forced to act, but they're going to drag their feet as much as possible. My guess as to how this will play out is that at some point in the debate (perhaps when a bill reaches the Senate floor) there will be a "House Republican alternative" bill proposed. This will not achieve anywhere near the goals set out in the Senate, and may not even include a path to citizenship at all. If such a path is actually included, look for the triggers, hurdles, and conditions before it happens to make it all but an impossibility in real life.

The House will move forward with this shell-game bill, but even such a watered-down approach is still going to cause a ferocious intra-party fight. There are many Republicans in the House who would vote right now for "self-deportation" to become official government policy, to put this another way. There are probably even a handful of House Republicans who would stand up and vote for a "send them all home next week" bill, at least until they were presented with a cost estimate for doing so, that is. Such Republican hardliners are not particularly concerned with the party's overall image, and they are not concerned in the slightest over their prospects for re-election back home in their safely-gerrymandered districts. So look for them to rant and rave no matter what immigration reform bill is proposed.

The real question is what Boehner and the House Republican leadership will do in the face of this opposition. Will they denounce the more extremist language that is sure to be uttered? Will they try to convince the hardliners that Republicans will be committing electoral suicide if nothing passes? Will they actively reach out to (gasp!) Nancy Pelosi and try to pass a bill with just enough Republican support to counter the hardliners?

My guess at this point is in the realm of cautious optimism. House Republicans will put together a package that is as "tough" as they can make it without losing all Democratic support whatsoever. This will be seen as a necessity for Boehner, because if he can't move a House bill, he will be under enormous pressure to just introduce the Senate-passed bill intact, on the House floor. He will be under pressure to do so anyway, which he can use to strongarm a few of his fellow Republicans into passing a separate House bill, which he can sell to them as "better than the Senate version."

Although it will cause a deep divide in his own party, I'm betting that Boehner actually pulls off this trick and passes some sort of House bill. Because, by doing so, Boehner's House Republicans will wind up with a lot better bargaining position and a lot more political leverage. If a House bill passes and a Senate bill passes and they don't match, then both pieces of legislation will move to a conference committee.

This is the stage I reserve my deepest pessimism for. Because this is the point where actually passing a bill becomes less important to the politicians (read: Republicans) who are more concerned with "sending a political message" than in "actually fixing a problem." If the House manages to pass a bill, then Boehner can appoint some hardliners to the conference committee, which will all but guarantee that no workable compromise with the Senate can ever be reached.

Republicans, at this point, may figure that it won't matter much politically if the reform effort winds up dying in such a committee. They'll figure that they have inoculated themselves on the issue, and will be able to campaign on "We passed comprehensive immigration reform, but the Democrats killed it!" and it'll do just as much good among Latinos as if Obama actually signs a bill into law.

OK, that's it for our clips. What happened after these columns were written was that the Senate did indeed pass the Gang of Eight bill, by almost as big a margin as I predicted (68 voted for it). Since then, the House has dragged its feet and stalled. Until today.

House Republicans have unveiled their plan, which (as I predicted) contains: "Sure, we'll give some sort of papers to these folks, let them stay, and even let them work... but there's no need to give them the hope of ever becoming a full citizen." Or maybe not. We'll see what their actual bill says, when it appears. By redefining it as a "special path to citizenship," Republicans are hoping that people won't notice that the normal path to citizenship involves a 20-year-long backlog of applicants. You think the DMV's bad? Try waiting two decades for a response from a governmental agency.

House Republicans see this as a brilliant wedge issue. If they dangle work papers in front of immigrants, then some will thankfully go for it while others will hold out for a real path to citizenship. This divides the pro-immigrant Democrats, Republicans figure. And they may well be right -- it'll be interesting to see how Democrats react in the next week or so. But, once again, the only two real things a green card holder is denied are a seat on a jury and a vote at the ballot box. And I don't think Republicans are too worried about the jury thing, to put it mildly.

Getting back to what Boehner just proposed. What are the chances of it passing the House? Unknown. Boehner is almost certainly going to have to ignore the self-imposed "Hastert Rule" at some point, meaning he'll have to get a bunch of Democrats on board with the proposal. This will give Democrats quite a bit of leverage in the negotiations over language in the bills.

But even assuming that a legislative package does pass the House, there is one thing in the Republican announcement which really caught my eye, in the news story I read. It can be read as an affirmation of that "small bills only" obsession, but indeed it is no more than a veiled threat:

[The immigration problem] cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand, and therefore, we will not go to a conference with the Senate's immigration bill. The problems in our immigration system must be solved through a step-by-step, common-sense approach that starts with securing our country's borders, enforcing our laws, and implementing robust enforcement measures.

Translated from Washington-ese, this means that Boehner is demanding, in essence, that the Senate just happily pass whatever bills the House Republicans approve of, and ignore the bill that passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. This is going to be a non-starter, if Harry Reid has any backbone whatsoever. Conference committees are that "regular order" Republicans have been whining about, and regular order is indeed what should happen here. The House and the Senate are going to have to compromise somehow, whether John Boehner likes it or not. Of course, that is only if the ultimate goal is actually putting a final bill on President Obama's desk. And I am not convinced that this is John Boehner's real goal.

Maybe that's too cynical. Boehner is making one crafty move, by scheduling the entire exercise after the Republican primary season, from all accounts. What this means is that House Republicans won't have to vote on anything before winning their own primary elections. This means the Tea Party can't use these votes in any primary challenges this year -- a huge weight off incumbent Republicans. This is politically astute of Boehner, meaning he may well be more sincere than I'm inclined to give him credit for. Stranger things have happened.

But even if Boehner does pass some bills, if he refuses to negotiate with the Senate then nothing is going to become law. The Republicans, however, will be able to reach out to Latinos by saying "We tried, but the Democrats killed it," which is all some Republicans think is politically necessary.

To sum up, while a year ago I put the chances at immigration reform actually happening at a now-laughable "80-85 percent," I would now have to lower those odds significantly. I would say there is 80-85 percent chance of at least one bill passing the House (the bill that says "lots and lots and lots of border security money"). I would set the chances of the House passing truly comprehensive immigration reform (in other words, enough House bills to match the Senate's effort in scope) at maybe 60 percent, given Boehner's leak today to the media. But I would only put the chances of a comprehensive package passing both the House and Senate and arriving on Obama's desk at about 40-45 percent, at best. And even that, at this point, seems pretty wildly optimistic.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “Reviewing Immigration Reform's Chances”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    I'm too lazy to find the original thread, so on an off-subject topic (Waxman's retirement), be very careful what you wish for:



  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    You are to stop engaging in any sort of self-depreciation, at once!


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Sandra Fluke as a (rhetorically speaking) punching bag???

    I LOVE IT!!!

    I can see the Republican rebuttle to her campaign.

    "Do we really want a woman who needs $3000 a month for sex stuff to be our representative??"


    Crude and crass, I know.. But it's politics and politics is a contact sport..

    As far as immigration goes, my biggest beef is the voter issue.

    While I would still be opposed (why reward people who knowingly and willfully break our laws??) if illegal immigrants cannot vote and steps are taken to INSURE they cannot vote and SECURE BORDERS are done first before ANY kind of amnesty is offered, then I would be a LOT less opposed to any legislation..

    But, as you indicate, Democrats won't go for it. Because the ONLY reason Democrats are pro illegal immigrant is because they want a "rich new feeding ground" of fresh voters. Dems are just like the Wraith.. :D


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    I'm too lazy to find the original thread, so on an off-subject topic (Waxman's retirement), be very careful what you wish for:

    Fluke is like Kardashian...

    Her only claim to fame, her ONLY experience on the national scene, is that she was called a slut by Rush Limbaugh..

    Come'on, people. Is THAT the Left's only criteria for leadership??


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Someone on HuffPo said EXACTLY what I said in #4 regarding Fluke's candidacy..

    I completely support Sandra's general position on women's rights.

    But I am really tired of knee-jerk reactions on candidates. What are her qualifications? What are her positions? None of you even know, and you're leaping on board a candidacy. You don't even care. Her chief qualification so far is that she got piggishly singled out and treated rudely. That's a qualification?

    A woman like Elizabeth Warren is a brilliant candidate, not because she's a woman, but because she's brilliant and extraordinarily qualified, probably overqualified for just the Senate. She's Presidential material.

    A woman like Janet Yellen is a brilliant choice to head the Fed, not because she's a woman, but because she's brilliant and extraordinarily qualified.

    Janet Napolitano is a brilliant choice to head Homeland Security, not because she's a woman, but because she's brilliant and extraordinarily qualified.

    The way Ms. Fluke was treated was sexist and juvenile and ridiculous. But have you ever actually heard her speak? She is shrinking and timid and stammering. She specializes on a very narrowly specific single issue. We have no clue where she stands on 98% of issues that face a Representative. She's just a pup fresh out of dissertationland. And now she's a candidate? Come on.

    For F's sake. Take your government seriously.

    It's this kind of "What are the candidates qualifications??" "Who cares! The Right hates them!!" mentality that has gotten this country into so much trouble the last 6 years....


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    See? You proved my point. After all that, you have completely forgotten all about Waxman, haven't you?


    A House seat is not the presidency. It is not the Senate. It is not chairman of the Fed. It is a House seat.

    It comes with a 2-year term, the shortest in the American government. You only have to be 25 years old -- the youngest age requirement. You are just one voice of 435, should you win.

    In short, the House is where people go to ATTAIN political experience. It is the "starter job" for national politicians. So what's the problem with Fluke wanting a starter job? Maybe she'll do great, maybe she'll flame out. Maybe she'll even, as you point out, just become one shrill Lefty voice crying in the wilderness, who is obviously unqualified for any higher office.

    Then she'd be just like a lot of other folks in the House (Michelle Bachmann and Louie Gohmert spring immediately to mind). But whether she does great or not, Lefties will enjoy having her there for precisely the same reason they enjoyed seeing Hillary Clinton in the Senate and still enjoy seeing Al Franken there: because her just being there makes Righties' heads explode.


    I've heard Fluke speak. I've shaken her hand. I'd vote for her, even if the "Rightie heads exploding" thing weren't even an issue. And I'd bet that Beverly Hills (part of Waxman's district) is going to come to the same conclusion.

    So, as I said, be very careful what you wish for.


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    What's yer take on that HuffPo Poster's comments??


  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    I thought I just answered that. I know more than most about Fluke because I've heard her speak. She is more than one-dimensional. And, again, a House seat is just a House seat, it's not the Oval Office, the Fed chair, Homeland Security, or even the Senate. One person among 435 just isn't as serious as any of those others, so I consider it a false equivalency.

    Would I support Fluke for Fed chair or Homeland Security head? Probably not, at this point. She doesn't have the necessary experience. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't be glad to see her in the House. Apples and oranges.


  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    Fair enough. :D


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:
  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Don't forget, too, that Sandra Fluke made it through Georgetown Law School. That's more impressive than a lot of House members, right there.

    Just an afterthought...


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