As with every major piece of legislation, the odds of immigration reform actually becoming law are low.
At the end of last year, immigration reform seemed dead. House leadership kept saying they’d take it up in the future, but were vague on a timetable. No one (including me) seemed to have much hope.
But in recent weeks, House Republican leadership has shown a serious desire to pass a series of smaller bills and actually get immigration reform done.
Given that midterm elections are often determined by a party’s ability to get out its base to vote, many conservatives are concerned that pursuing immigration reform will divide the party and hurt them in November.
Among the people who have voiced this opinion are Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, Sean Trende and Chris Cillizza. It’s a reasonable opinion, but these arguments are both too cynical and mistake the optimal political timetable for immigration reform.
First, you have to remember that the Republican Party is intent on passing immigration reform before the 2016 election to try to win back some of the Hispanic vote. Trende has written repeatedly that immigration reform is not necessary for Republicans to win the White House and that agreeing to immigration reform won’t necessarily win back a large share of the Hispanic vote. He’s right, but the establishment is still convinced that immigration reform is vital for the party’s success in 2016.
So, given that Republicans are determined to pass immigration reform back the 2016 election, then you next have to think about when is the best time to make it happen. Not in 2016, when the election will be in full swing. But 2015 is very problematic as well because it will be right around when primaries pick up. As Greg Sargent points out, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) would love for immigration reform to be a major issue in the Republican primary. It could easily pull the entire Republican field to the right and damage their chances in the general election.
At that point, you’re left with this year.
There are a few more reasons this makes sense. For the first time in years, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has tenuous control in his party. The tea party is on the defensive after losing credibility with the government shutdown and failing to block both the budget agreement and the farm bill. Even on the debt ceiling, few conservatives are making crazy demands. (Rep. Michele Bachmann has even given in.)
In addition, the Senate has already passed an immigration bill. Of course, the House is planning on doing things its own way, but at least we have a bipartisan piece of legislation that the Senate has passed. And as Seung Min Kim notes in Politico, that bill includes a carefully crafted deal between the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO over guest workers, something that was not easy to accomplish. Trying to redo that in a few years won’t be easy.
The electoral consequences are also not that dire for Republicans. They are already assured of keeping the House this year. The Senate is still a toss-up at best for the GOP, so pursuing immigration reform could cost them there. But the potential electoral consequences of pursuing immigration reform in 2015 could mean losing the presidency. Possibly losing the Senate when a Democrat is already in the White House is not that bad in comparison.
Finally, immigration reform is something that we need to get done. There are nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Pushing this off until 2017 or further will only exacerbate the problem. Boehner may also be looking to cement his legacy, with rumours that he may consider retiring soon. Those are two less cynical reasons that the House may take it up in the next few months.
None of this means immigration reform will happen. The odds are heavily stacked against it. Even among establishment Republicans, their acceptable policy ideas may not overlap at all with what the White House deems acceptable.
In all likelihood, their ranges of acceptable policy solutions are mutually exclusive and immigration reform will die in the next few months. But if that happens, then reform isn’t happening until after President Obama leaves office, which means Republicans will have to give up on their goal of passing immigration reform before the 2016 election.
Right now, they’re not quite ready to give up. That means they must choose the best time and political environment to push legislation. That time is now.
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