THE BLOG
04/22/2013 07:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

Immigration Reform's Chances

What are the chances comprehensive immigration reform is actually going to happen this year? Your guess is really as good as mine, since we're only at the beginning of a very long path -- one that leads to Obama's desk, but one that also has a lot of dead-ends and side branchings off to legislative doom. Whether a bill can make it through the Senate and (especially) the Republican-controlled House is a very open question, even without the complications of the Boston Marathon bombers.

I'm not going to directly address the impact the Boston terrorism will have on the immigration debate today, because immigration reform foes will always have plenty of other issues they can bring up in an effort to halt the bill in its tracks. So I don't think the political calculus changes all that much due to Boston, to tell the truth. I could always be wrong about that, but then I could be wrong about any of this stuff.

The first battles over immigration reform will happen in Pat Leahy's Senate committee. The second round of battles will happen on the floor of the Senate. In both cases, there will be attempts to push the bill so far in one direction or another that it becomes impossible to pass with bipartisan support. Bipartisan support will indeed be necessary for any bill to pass, especially after it gets through the Senate.

The "Gang of Eight" bill has already come farther than some skeptics ever thought it would (myself among them, at times, as full disclosure). Democrats have already won an enormous battle both in the legislation and in the world of political messaging, through their insistence on a "path to citizenship." This was a huge concession for Republicans to agree to, and it is now permanently framed as the minimum any bill must achieve. That's a big victory, right at the start, and people should realize how significant a victory it truly is.

This victory was made possible by the 2012 election, of course. Republicans knew they pretty much had to have an immigration bill to support, and so they have already agreed to the path to citizenship before the debate even really starts.

Some Republicans, that is. Others will be looking to ways to make that path to citizenship as long and as hard as possible, and they will do this in various ways. Look for increasingly impossible "triggers" to be proposed that have to be met before anyone even starts the process of becoming a citizen.

Most of these will likely be voted down in committee, due to the Democrats' edge in the Senate. But there will be some fierce battles on the Senate floor, where pretty much everything is going to require 60 votes to move forward.

Assuming the four Republicans responsible for drafting the bill with Democrats continue to support their own work, and also assuming Democrats hold their votes together, this really means only convincing one more Republican to support the Democrats' position. Also assuming Democrats hang tough, any Republican amendment that doesn't actually improve the bill (rather than attempting to doom it) will likely not pass muster.

These are all very large assumptions, I realize. But I'm feeling optimistic, at least about the Senate. I think that not only will the core legislation remain intact, but that nothing too odious will be attached to it before the final vote. And I'm going to go way out on a limb and predict that the bill won't just pass, it'll pass rather overwhelmingly on that final vote. Many Republicans will fight hard for poison-pill amendments, lose, and then oh-so-reluctantly decide to support the final bill in the end. Remember, all it will take is one additional Republican to support it, and we're already at 60 votes (maybe they should have formed a "Gang of Ten," to avoid this problem?). When the rest of the Republicans realize that the bill's going to pass no matter what, then they're going to have to ask themselves what the whole point of this exercise is for their party in the first place. After getting shellacked among Latino and Asian voters, they're supposed to be painting a happier face on their party's brand, after all. So, given the excuse of "it would've passed anyway," I foresee a whole bunch of Republicans getting on board at the last minute, eager to be perceived as being on the right side of history. The final vote tally will be at least 70 or 75 in favor, and I could even see it higher than 80.

Hey, I warned you I was going out on a limb.

This will put an immense amount of pressure on the House Republicans, and John Boehner in particular. He will not be able to use the stock GOP line "Senate Democrats are trying to ram this down our throats," because with that kind of bipartisan support, he'd look like a fool if he tried to do so.

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.

I am extremely optimistic that a comprehensive immigration bill can pass the Senate, and with overwhelming support. I am a lot less optimistic that any immigration bill whatsoever can pass the House, but I think the chances for passing their own bill (rather than the Senate's) are greater. But I have no idea that, should I be right about those first two steps, any bill will emerge from conference committee. The longer they take to try to hash out some sort of compromise, the closer Congress will get to the 2014 election season. If Republicans think that "we tried our hardest" is going to work for them out on the campaign trail, then I could (sadly) see the whole thing fall apart at the end. I do hope I'm wrong about that last part, I truly do. But, at this juncture, I honestly do see it as a strong possibility.

 

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