The Senate and House had not even settled the final details of ending the government shutdown before President Obama was on to his next priority. “We still need to pass a law to fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said on the night of Oct. 16 as Capitol Hill scrambled to end the standoff. In case anyone missed it, the next morning he declared: “We should finish the job of fixing our broken immigration system.”
There’s no doubt the president wants an immigration deal; he’s talked about it for years, and now can’t put it off until another term. But could the Republican-controlled House of Representatives — exhausted, dazed and confused after the self-inflicted battering of the last few weeks — actually get itself together to pass a reform bill to go along with the Gang of Eight bill the Senate already passed?
The prospect alone makes some observers laugh. “People talking about immigration being next: have you been watching the House?” tweeted National Review’s Jonathan Strong during the worst of the shutdown battle, adding the hashtag “#craziness.” In this (entirely reasonable) view, there’s no way the fractured GOP could ever unite to pass such a far-reaching piece of legislation.
But that doesn’t keep immigration reformers from trying — and hoping. “There is still a window,” says one House GOP aide involved in crafting a reform proposal. “The leadership has said keep working on it and see what you can do.”
Republican immigration proponents have been quietly talking to GOP members throughout even the craziest days of the shutdown and default fights. They report some progress. Yes, the most conservative House Republicans are mostly against them. But those with a libertarian bent are more open to the cause. The aide says reformers have had good meetings “with a few of those guys who were with Ted Cruz at Tortilla Coast,” referring to the House conservatives who met with the Texas senator at a Washington, D.C., restaurant and ended up holding out longest against a deal to end the shutdown.
But the problem for reformers is not the fractiousness of House Republicans, although that doesn’t help. The problem is that the reformers have never found a way to balance the border security demands of conservatives with the reformers’ demand for quick legalization of the 11 million-plus immigrants currently in the United States illegally. The conservatives must have security first, and then legalization (and even then, some won’t ever support reform). The reformers won’t wait until security is in place before starting legalization.
The Senate papered over the problem by throwing billions of dollars at border security in the final rush to pass the Gang of Eight bill. But that didn’t make the Gang’s solution any more attractive to House conservatives. “I think there would be overwhelming opposition from within the ranks to going to conference with the Gang of Eight bill,” one conservative House member said in an email exchange. “Indeed, this would be way more divisive than the last four weeks have been for the House GOP.”
The conservatives seek to avoid a scenario in which the House passes some sort of immigration bill, goes to conference with the Senate, and comes out of the negotiations with a bill that looks a lot like the Gang of Eight’s. “Everyone has seen the bad faith exhibited by Obama and (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid during this fiscal fight, and I can’t imagine anyone making the case that a final (immigration) product would reflect conservative principles in any fashion,” the lawmaker says. “Reid has all but said that no matter what the House passes the Senate will simply jam the Gang of Eight bill through a conference committee.”
That skepticism is probably shared by a large number of House Republicans, perhaps enough to kill any reform proposal. But the reformers, led by Obama, are still trying. They have the Senate bill in their pocket. They have nearly unanimous Democratic support plus a significant number of Republicans. They have the support of powerful interest groups. And they have money, money, money.
At a recent Congressional Hispanic Conference meeting, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky noted that the forces of comprehensive immigration reform include vastly wealthy businesses willing to spend big to win. And the other side? “There is no money on the other side of the issue,” Yarmuth said. “There is nobody out there ready to spend $100 million against this.”
For the pro-reform side, supporters like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — who wants looser visa standards for foreign high-tech workers — can rustle up that much with the help of a few Silicon Valley friends.
An initiative with that much money and that much clout behind it can never be dismissed. Which means that, even if comprehensive immigration reform appears to be dead, its opponents can never, ever assume the game is over.