Defunding Obamcare Doesn’t Change Odds of Immigration Reform

Byron York, the conservative reporter for the Washington Examiner, penned a piece on Monday about how Tea Party activists have focused more on defunding Obamacare than opposing comprehensive immigration reform during the August recess. York notes that this could be a major boon for immigration reform’s chances of passing the House:

GOP activists should also keep in mind what they can change and what they can’t. And at the moment, the thing they can change is not Obamacare but immigration reform.

If August goes quietly on the immigration front, some Republican lawmakers may return to Washington with the sense that voters back home don’t really mind that immigration reform goes forward. And then it will. If, on the other hand, lawmakers hear expressions of serious opposition at town meetings, their conclusion will be just the opposite. And reform will likely go down to defeat.

So Democrats don’t really mind if Republicans use up all their grass-roots energy railing about Obamacare. It’s already the law. What would be a problem for Democrats, and for some pro-reform Republicans, is if the GOP grassroots concentrated its fire on immigration reform. That could well mean the end of President Obama’s top legislative priority for his second term.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore picked up on this as well today, but I just can’t see any way this happens.

There are really three possible ways that immigration reform passes:

  1. A majority of Republican House members support it so Speaker John Boehner can bring it to the floor without breaking the Hastert Rule. This would require at least 117 House Republicans to support the legislation. Boehner will only have those votes if he brings a very conservative bill to the floor. But such a bill would receive no Democratic support and would also lose a number of Republicans. With only 234 House Republicans, the Speaker can only lose 16 of them or else the bill won’t pass. This puts him in a bind. Any bill that receives majority Republican support will lose too many moderate Republicans to pass.
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  2. Boehner breaks the Hastert Rule and passes immigration reform with strong Democratic support. This would almost surely end his speakership and is thus highly unlikely to happen.
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  3. Seventeen House Republicans agree to sign a discharge petition with all House Democrats (or a couple more House Republicans and a few less House Democrats) so that the bill is automatically brought to the floor, without support of House leadership. This would be an incredibly risky move for any Republican. It would antagonize the top Republicans and likely lead to a primary challenge. Thus, it’s also highly unlikely to happen.

Given those three possibilities, does less pressure from the base change anything? Maybe a bit. A few Congressmen may feel more willing to vote for the bill than if they faced major pressure during the recess. But let’s assume options two and three aren’t happening. That means that a lot of Republicans will have to support a moderate bill so Boehner doesn’t break the Hastert bill, but it still receives Democratic support to pass. The Tea Party hammering away at defunding Obamacare may convince a couple House Republicans that supporting moderate legislation is acceptable. But I can’t see how it will convince enough of them.

Not to mention, the reason Tea Party activists aren’t up in arms over immigration reform is that, as York writes, they think they’ve killed it already. If it comes back from the dead, they aren’t going to sit around and continue yelling about defunding Obamacare (well, they’ll still do that some surely). They’re going to scream at their representatives to oppose the bill.

How many of those House Republicans who supported the bill when they didn’t hear opposition to it during the August recess are still going to support it when that opposition does materialize? The answer: Not many.

Raul Labrador Has a Point

Over the weekend, Raul Labrador appeared on Meet the Press to talk about immigration reform:

In fact, if you look at this Obamacare debacle that they have right now, this administration is actually deciding when and where to actually enforce the law. And that’s what some of us in the House are concerned about. If you give to this administration the authority to decide when they’re going to enforce the law, how they’re going to enforce the law … what’s going to happen is that we’re going to give legalization to 11 million people and Janet Napolitano is going to come to Congress and tell us that the border is already secure and nothing else needs to happen.

Sounds a bit crazy, right? Not really. Republicans have been clamoring for years now about the authoritarian Obama administration. Much of it has been utter bogus, but Labrador has a point here and we can look right back to last week’s delay of the employer mandate to see it.

The employer mandate requires all employers with more than 50 workers to offer affordable health insurance or pay a $2,000 fine. Implementing this policy has proven difficult so the White House announced last week that it was delaying the employer mandate until 2015. Except the Obama Administration doesn’t have the ability to do that. Congress does. Instead, the Administration told the IRS to not enforce the $2,000 fine for a year. That’s not how the government is supposed to work. Here’s Ezra Klein last week:

This is a regulatory end-run of the legislative process. The law says the mandate goes into effect in 2014, but the administration has decided to give it until 2015 by simply refusing to enforce the penalties.

The administration says this kind of thing happens all the time. “I think you’d be harder pressed to find some example where there wasn’t some discretion on how to implement major policies than one where everything went exactly by the books,” says one senior administration official involved in implementation.

Be that as it may, the regulatory solution reflects the fact that the legislative process around the health-care law is completely broken. Republicans won’t pass any legislation that makes the law work better. Improving the law, they fear, will weaken the arguments for repeal. But Democrats, of course, won’t permit repeal. So Congress is at a standstill, with no viable process for reforming or repairing the Affordable Care Act as problems arise. And so the White House is acting on its own.

If the President had come out and asked Congress to pass a bill delaying the employer mandate for a year, do you think legislators would have obliged? I’m not sure. Republicans would be up in arms screaming for repeal again. Would they agree to the delay?  I don’t know. But even if they hadn’t, the White House would have at least tried to adjust the law legally and not used its own authority. Instead, it circumvented Congress without even trying to adjust it legally.

That’s exactly what Labrador feels could happen with immigration reform. The immigration bill that passed the Senate does not have any hard triggers so Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano wouldn’t actually have to tell Congress the border is secure before illegal immigrants could apply for citizenship. But in any bill that passes the House, hard triggers will almost certainly be part of it and would require such testimony from Napolitano.

Why are Democrats so against hard triggers? They fear that a future Republican Secretary of Homeland Security will never declare the border secure to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving citizenship. Labrador has the exact same fear: that a future Democratic Secretary of Homeland Security will definitely declare the border secure, even if it isn’t, to allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship. Republicans favor hard triggers because it’s much harder to declare the border secure when it isn’t than to declare it insecure when it is. Nevertheless, Labrador has the same fear that Democrats have. Both are rooted in a deep distrust of the opposite party with the belief that a future administration will simply bend the rules to get what it wants.

With the employer mandate, the Obama Administration did just that. Raul Labrador isn’t crazy. Conn Carroll isn’t foolish to suggest that “immigration reform is dead and Obamacare implementation killed it.” That may be a bit extreme, but it’s not unfounded. It’s just an ugly component of the dysfunctional, distrustful atmosphere that plagues our political system right now.