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Why Immigration Reform Could Survive

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Even before the votes are counted today, there is a broad consensus that immigration reform will be a casualty of the midterm elections. Republicans killed it in this Congress and there will be more Republicans next year. Moreover, the controversies over children crossing the Mexican border this year may have shifted the politics to the anti-immigration side.

Yet a few professionals in both parties say that reports of reform's demise may be premature. A compelling case can be made that it would be in the interest of both the Republicans and President Barack Obama to get something done.

So despite the conventional wisdom, the odds of the 114th Congress enacting a major immigration reform -- substantively not all that different from the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate last year, may be close to 40 percent.

Here's why it looks so difficult, starting with the Senate. In 2013, the measure passed 68 to 32. As many as 10 supporters could be gone with this election, and most would be replaced by opponents. Some who voted "aye" last year might bolt. For example, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a crucial backer, may find an excuse to flip because he's running for president and his support for a measure would be a liability in the Republican primaries.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner had wanted to act on a bill this year, but a solid majority of his caucus opposed him, and the same will be true in 2015.

So how is a reform bill in the Republicans' interest? Simple. The Hispanic vote is one of the fastest-growing slices of the U.S. electorate and is especially important in a handful of battleground states. In a presidential race -- where the dynamics are different than in midterm elections -- Republicans can ill-afford to be seen as the anti-immigrant party.

There are a number of Senate Republicans, notably leader Mitch McConnell who voted against the 2013 legislation, but who might be looking for a way to enact something.

Why is reform in Obama's interest? It may be one of the few domestic-policy accomplishments of his final two years in office, a time when all presidents think of legacies.

The trick will be to make it possible for Republicans who switch positions and antagonize the right wing to be able to claim they got important concessions. That could mean even more money allocated to border security, and a watering-down of the provision giving a pathway to citizenship to some undocumented immigrants.

However to keep the support of Hispanic groups and other reform backers, and the White House, these changes will have to be largely cosmetic.

That will require much skill and will.

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:
Albert R Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net