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Midterm Election's Sure Loser: Immigration Reform

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Would a Republican takeover of the Senate improve the prospects that an immigration bill will get to President Barack Obama's desk? The theory is making the rounds -- and some of the people who oppose the dominant approach to immigration reform are starting to worry about it.

The theory goes like this: A lot of Republicans, having just taken full control of Congress and seeking the presidency in 2016, will want to show that they can govern. And many of them think that they need to deal with immigration, in particular, to do so. The idea is that passing a reform bill would help the party appeal to Hispanics and take the issue away from Democrats in the presidential campaign.

It could happen, but I'm skeptical.

First: It isn't clear that John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy, the top two Republicans in the House, would be willing to divide their party over this issue.

The Senate isn't the obstacle to legislative success; it passed a bill last year that would have offered a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, expanded legal immigration and boosted security at the Mexican border. The House is widely assumed to have at least a small majority for that bill too -- but that majority, if it exists, would comprise most House Democrats and only a few Republicans. Enough Republicans oppose the bill bitterly that the House leadership hasn't scheduled a vote on it.

Are Boehner and McCarthy going to stop placating those opponents? There's no great payoff for them: Immigration is a very low-priority issue for most voters, so the praise for "governing" they'd get would mostly come from the nation's editorial pages. And the assumption that passing the bill will help Republicans appeal to Hispanics is questionable. Wouldn't those Hispanic voters motivated by the issue notice which party had actually voted for the bill and cast their ballots accordingly?

Second: Are we sure that the House will still have a majority for the immigration bill next year? The momentum in the midterm elections seems to be on the side of its opponents. A lot of Republicans drew the lesson from Representative Eric Cantor's surprise primary defeat that backing the bill is risky.

Third: Unilateral action by the president on immigration could further decrease the likelihood of action. In 2012, the Obama administration, seeking to keep congressional Republicans from getting a bipartisan victory on the issue, granted an executive-branch amnesty to people who came here illegally as minors. White House officials have been talking about granting a more sweeping amnesty after the next elections. Unilateral action will deeply anger even those Republicans who favor the bill, and enrage those who oppose it. Republicans are going to be even less eager to work with the administration on immigration afterward.

A bill along the lines of the one the Senate passed has been consistently favored by business groups, unions, editorialists and both parties' leaders for years. Yet they've proven unable to get it enacted under just about every possible partisan configuration of power in Washington. A Republican president and a Republican Congress couldn't do it. Neither could a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, or a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, or a Democratic president and a split Congress.

My bet is that the pattern continues next year, under a Democratic president and a Republican Congress.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net