With primary season nearly over, we’re approaching what is undoubtedly the last chance for Congress to act on immigration reform before the midterm elections. For the past two years, no issue has loomed larger over Washington. Because of its importance to the future of the Republican Party and because it’s a rare issue with bipartisan support, gaming out the twists and turns of a possible legislative path for immigration reform has become a Beltway obsession.
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012—an election in which Hispanics voted for Barack Obama by a 71-27 margin—overhauling the nation’s immigration laws and granting legal status to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. were supposed to be GOP imperatives. As the Republican National Committee urged in its postelection autopsy, “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
Last June the Democratic-led Senate passed a hard-fought bipartisan reform bill that would have achieved this goal. But that bill died under pressure from conservatives when it got to the Republican-led House, despite support from a bipartisan majority. Speaker John Boehner, who’s repeatedly said he favors reform, could easily usher it into law by letting the House vote on the bill. A minority of House Republicans would join with almost all Democrats to pass it. And President Obama has made clear he’s eager to sign it. But Boehner has been unwilling to allow such a vote, because a majority of GOP members don’t support it.
At a May 23 press conference, Fusion and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos asked him point blank, “Why are you blocking immigration reform?”
“Me? Blocking?” Boehner sputtered.
“Yes, you,” Ramos replied. “You could bring it to a vote, but you haven’t.”
Boehner responded by criticizing the Senate bill and claiming Republicans couldn’t trust Obama to enforce the law. What Boehner didn’t say was that if he were to allow a vote on the Senate bill, he’d risk a conservative revolt that would cost him his speakership.
Some reformers had hoped that Boehner would find a way around the anti-immigration conservatives in his caucus—that even as he appeased them by denouncing the Senate bill, he would arrange to make it a fait accompli through legislative maneuvering. In January, Boehner issued a “framework” to legalize undocumented workers that might have smoothed the path to legislation, but conservatives quickly beat it back.
To maintain an appearance of working toward reform even as they reject the Senate’s comprehensive approach, various House Committees have passed narrowly targeted bills.
Modest though they may be, such a bill could theoretically serve as a vehicle for more ambitious reform. Were the House to pass it, a House-Senate conference committee assembled to reconcile the two bills could—if it were stacked with reform supporters—produce something that very closely resembles the Senate’s bill. “I think that moving in a piece-by-piece fashion on this in a common-sense way is the way to do this,” Boehner said on May 22. Yet so far he has refused to allow the House even to vote on these narrow Republican measures.
Reformers are clinging to one final possibility: When the primaries are finished and Republican members no longer face the immediate prospect of being unseated by a challenge from their right, they’ll act quickly to address their party’s problems with Hispanics. But that hope is hard to square with how these primary races are unfolding. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who claims to support reform and faces a June 10 primary, recently sent out a campaign flier boasting that he “is stopping the Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty.”
The Senate bill will expire when the new Congress is seated in January, so Congress has another seven months to puzzle it out. The actual window is probably much smaller. In August, House members will return to their districts to campaign for reelection, shelving all business in Washington. So Boehner doesn’t have long to act—if he’s still inclined to do so at all.