The Politics of Immigration Reform

With the government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship behind us, attention in Washington has turned back to comprehensive immigration reform, another politically toxic subject for Republicans. The question is whether reform actually has a chance. As many have noted, if John Boehner wants to pass an immigration bill, he has the ability to do so. He can put a bill on the floor that would pass with mostly Democratic votes.

That’s been true with almost every issue though. The real question is whether the incentive structure is right for Boehner to defy the right wing of his party. Examining the situation through that framework, the answer is almost certainly “No.”

As I’ve written before, the Tea Party has control over Boehner and mainstream Republicans, because they are willing to commit electoral suicide and drag the Republican establishment down with them by creating a GOP civil war. Moderate conservatives are not willing to do that. As long as the Tea Party is willing to break away from the rest of the party, Boehner must adhere to their wishes. The only exception to that rule is if the Tea Party becomes so extreme that it ensures the GOP will lose its House majority. Thanks to gerrymandering, it’s near impossible for Democrats to have much of a chance of taking back the House. The Tea Party basically cannot become so extreme as to put the House in jeopardy. That means the greatest threat to the Republican House majority is an intra-party civil war. The Tea Party is willing to cause that. The establishment isn’t. That recklessness gives the Tea Party its power.

This dynamic existed during the government shutdown and debt ceiling fights and it exists now with immigration reform. The only hope is that Democrats and the Tea Party find some common ground that is acceptable to both. Unfortunately, no such common ground exists. There is no policy acceptable to one that is acceptable to the other.

Many pundits have made a lot of what Boehner said yesterday. “I still think immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed,” he said. “And I’m hopeful.” There is movement within the party as well to push for immigration reform (Darrell Issa and Mario Diaz-Balart are drafting legislation).

But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Of course, Boehner thinks “immigration reform is an important subject.” It would be insane for him to dismiss it out of hand. Entertaining the topic and dragging it out lessens the political damage when the Tea Party eventually forces him to kill it. What would he accomplish by killing it now?

There is always the chance that the Tea Party realizes how much political damage it is causing. Maybe Cruz & Co. will decide that immigration reform is necessary. I’m highly skeptical of that, but if they do have a change of heart, then immigration reform becomes a real possibility. But none of this changes the political framework that exists right now in the Republican party. The right-wingers have control and Boehner is doing his best to keep his caucus unified. If the Tea Party doesn’t want immigration reform, then we’re not getting immigration reform.

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.

The Trouble Securing the GOP Nomination for Senate Republicans

Ed Kilgore, Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum each had posts today basically declaring Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) 2016 presidential aspirations dead after immigration reform has stalled in the house. Marshall says so defiantly. Kilgore believes that, after “settling” for candidates that were too moderate in 2008 and 2012, the Republican base will stay away from Rubio in ’16. Drum agrees, but adds that Rubio is young and has potential in 2020 and 2024.

I agree with all of that, but I want to expand the scope of this beyond just Rubio. Every senator with presidential aspirations – from Rubio to Ted Cruz (R-TX) to Rand Paul (R-KY) – is going to face the same critique from the general public: you haven’t done anything.

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Rubio’s 2016 presidential chances are falling.

It’s well known that Americans disapprove of Congress by large numbers. They also blame both sides for the gridlock, although the GOP gets slightly more of the blame in most polls. This presents a big problem for Republican presidential candidates over the next couple of years. How can they continue obstructing the Senate without continuing to seem like they’re the ones to blame? Rubio has seen over the past few weeks what happens when a senator steps across the aisle and tries to accomplish anything. Whatever passes the Senate is unacceptable to House Republicans, who are content to let the legislation die. Now Rubio faces the wrath of the base without anything to show moderates or Hispanics. That’s why Kilgore, Marshall and Drum have dug a grave for his 2016 presidential ambitions.

But Paul and Cruz are going to be expected to do more than shoot down every piece of legislation. Dave Weigel summed up Cruz’s six month in office today and his only accomplishments are disrupting lawmaking:

“That’s the story of Ted Cruz’s strategic acumen in the Senate. The paradox is that the theatrics that completely backfire in D.C. are embraced by activists in the bright world outside.”

We’re only six months into Cruz’s Senate career and it’s easy to rouse the base by refusing to compromise at the beginning. But at some point, most voters are going to want to see Cruz actually try to pass a law. The current Ted Cruz could certainly win the Republican primary, but he wouldn’t have a chance in the general election, because he won’t appeal to independents whatsoever. Three and a half more years of obstruction will just turn them off more.

That’s Republican senators’ problem: anyone in Congress will have trouble winning an election in 2016. It’s a lose-lose proposition for Republican Senators. If you support major legislation, help it get passed with bipartisan support and thus prove to moderates you’re willing to compromise, then the House will kill the bill (preventing you from taking credit), the Tea Party will withdraw their support and you will lose in a Republican primary. If you don’t support any legislation and just spend time arguing against all proposed policies, then independents will see you as an obstructionist who can’t govern. You’ll have Tea Party support, but moderate Republicans will be wary of your electability. If you do survive a primary, the Democratic candidate (likely Hilary Clinton) will beat you in the general election.

Rubio will top the list of 2016 Republican presidential candidates if immigration reform passes, but it’s unlikely it will. He took option one and lost. Cruz and Paul are eventually going to have to make a decision as well. Will they contribute to any policymaking and attempt to endear themselves to independents looking for compromise? Can they find a piece of legislation that is worth risking Tea Party support? Or will they continue to obstruct everything in the Senate, fight for support of the base and worry about pivoting in the future? That’s what makes any Republican congressman’s presidential campaign (pre-campaign in this case) so challenging. Anyone from the Senate faces structural political challenges that are nearly impossible to overcome. Rubio has already been taken down by them. Who will be next?