Serious immigration reform will be addressed later and will be narrower than some may hope.
The sparse result of months of partisan wrestling over the fiscal cliff portends a reduced likelihood that any of President Obama's second-term priorities, including immigration reform, will be addressed in the manner he outlines in his upcoming inaugural address.
Compromise requires an effort from both sides. President Obama moved on taxes from a $250,000 threshold to one of $450,000. Republicans were forced to accept that they could not extend tax breaks for everyone. Reaching an agreement takes time and requires each side to give, just as we witnessed in the tax debate.
There is no doubt that America desperately needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform that is compassionate and fair to all, enhances the competitive advantage America obtains from being a magnet for the world's best talent and preserves our security.
With a focus on the timing and the shape of immigration reform, five factors are operative:
- Awaiting lame duck status: Second-term presidents normally have a short window of time to pass serious legislation before Congress picks up the mantle and starts driving the agenda.
- Continuing fiscal cliff battles: One consequence of not reaching a grand bargain on the fiscal cliff is that it ensures that further contests over how to resolve the nation's ongoing deficits will suck much of the oxygen out of the most opportune time slot for legislative action: the period immediately following the president's inaugural address and the State of the Union address.
- Partisan poisoning: One of the reasons a grand bargain was not reached was that President Obama was most intent on winning a partisan victory over Republicans on raising tax rates. By choosing to focus more on the subsidiary goal of raising rates than on the primary goal of raising revenue to reduce deficits, the president chose politics over policy, further souring relations with Congress. While President Obama clearly had the upper hand politically in the tax debate, the lever of the debt ceiling tilts the playing field back to even when it comes to resolving the new cliff that looms just two months away. Resolving the even more contentious matter of reducing spending in such a pestilent environment is sure to consume much time and energy.
- Lack of focus: In order to really drive the direction of a major reform effort, a president must prioritize and avoid cluttering the playing field with numerous other initiatives at the same time. In his first inaugural address President Obama laid out a broad agenda but failed to achieve results until he narrowed his focus to health-care reform. Clearly energy, immigration and tax reform legislation are all desperately needed, but all cannot be done at once. Adding gun reform to the mix, regardless of its merits, will decrease the likelihood of action on other priorities and will elevate the level of partisan rancor.
- Centrality to Republican brand boosting: The need to address immigration reform for its own sake and to rebuild the Republican brand is well understood. As such, Republicans should be (and likely are) more motivated to actually pass, not just debate, an immigration bill than President Obama and congressional Democrats. There is little doubt that Democrats are willing to go further with immigration reform than Republicans are and may be content to force the point to preserve a political point. Astute Republicans would be wise to take great care to ensure that they tee up the legislative debate and the resulting legislation in a manner that Republicans can support, if not lead on. Given President Obama's demonstrated preference (from the stimulus bill on) for giving significant rein to Congress on major legislation and the pending necessity to do so as lame duck status approaches, one should expect any immigration bill that is enacted to be a congressionally crafted compromise bill.
One final point is that the precarious economic status of many Americans will make it even more difficult to pass significant immigration legislation. Nevertheless, there is a growing understanding that the world has changed and that America must play to its advantages to retain its premier economic standing. Clearly being the most welcoming and the most inclusive nation on the planet has been an economic benefit for all Americans. Sergey Brin, the Russian-born cofounder of Google, is one of a long list of immigrants who chose to build their business in America. We must all press to make democracy work by getting the politics right to respond to President Obama's inaugural call on immigration. We must pass immigration reform that is true to the hopes and aspirations of all Americans -- those who are already citizens, and those who are yet to be.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the George Washington University that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's Elise Foley, click here. To read the companion blog post by Frank Sharry of America's Voice, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.