In an awfully convenient move, Republicans can now blame Democrats if the Congress punts on comprehensive reform.
In the wake of the 16-day federal government shutdown, which, by early estimates, destroyed $24 billion in economic growth and cost as many as 250,000 jobs lost, many hoped that the Republicans — who are showing historically bad polling numbers — would take the opportunity to reaffirm that they can lead by taking decisive action on the pressing issues still facing the nation, such as immigration reform. However, indications suggest that not only are Republicans moving away from reconsidering immigration reform but may have planned such a shift since receiving the Senate’s proposal on comprehensive reform.
Many observers had hoped that the Republicans would embrace immigration reform to help redefine a party currently on the ropes. According to a CNN/ORC International survey released Monday, 54 percent of all respondents feel that Republican control of the House is a bad thing, compared with 13 percent that think Republican control is favorable. More than six in ten feel that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) needs to be replaced. Only 12 percent favor the job Congress is doing — just two points above Congress’s historic low for the CNN poll.
Despite this, the majority of congressional Republicans have suggested that the best way forward is to avoid the immigration question — at least until the dust settles from the shutdown fight. “The president’s actions and attitude over the past couple of weeks have certainly poisoned the well and made it harder to work together on any issue,” said a GOP leadership aide asked about the chances of major immigration legislation passing Congress.
Previously, the president had indicated that the nation must promptly move forward toward addressing the other issues facing the nation that were stalled from the summer session. Among these included Senate-passed bills that would overhaul in border security, require employer verification of workers’ residence status and create a lengthy path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already residing in the United States. The House has not addressed these bills yet, but has drafted smaller pieces of immigration legislation.
“We know our economy will grow faster if immigration reform passes,” the president said in an interview with Los Angeles’ Univision affiliate KMEX. “We know businesses will do better if immigration reform passes. We know that deficits will be reduced if immigration reform passes; because people coming out of the shadows, paying more taxes growing, the growth accelerating, all that brings down the deficit, so it’s important for everybody.”
The partisans’ route
Many Republicans now feel that the president’s and the Democrats’ hard-line stance has made future negotiations difficult. “A lot of us are resentful that he didn’t negotiate as hard as we think he could have or should have,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “Let me put it this way: He didn’t do himself any good.”
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) joined the president in calling for a return to legislation. “I look forward to the next venture, which is making sure we do immigration reform.”
“Good luck,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, (R-S.C.), the House immigration committee chair. “It’s a little disingenuous to treat the House as an irrelevant branch of government and then say, ‘By the way, tomorrow you’ll need to go ahead and push [immigration reform].'”
“It doesn’t work that way,” continued Gowdy, who, like McCain, had indicated support for immigration reform prior to the shutdown.
This seems to be at odds with what Gowdy told the Greenville News. “We had a government shutdown, we were at the precipice of hitting the debt ceiling and our strategy — or the strategy of some — has resulted arguably in [more of] a worst-case scenario than where we were on Oct. 1,” he said.
“I’m not one to cast stones,” he continued. “I need to go home and work on being more persuasive myself, and hopefully my colleagues will have a period of self-reflection and evaluate why they’re in public service as well.”
Dodging the issue
This seeming doubletalk coming from Republicans — in which the party both supports immigration reform and blames the Democrats for delays in implementing it — reflects the evolution of a conundrum facing the Republicans ever since immigration reform was broached as a legislative issue for this Congress. Prior to the shutdown, the House was already telegraphing that it would punt on the issue, possibly delaying implementation of a possible bill as late as 2015.
“I think that if we don’t do it now, in 2013, it’s not going to be — it’s not going to happen in 2014,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) Sept. 6 on Univision’s Al Punto. “And that means that we’re going to have to wait until 2015. So now, that time is — it’s becoming a lot shorter. We don’t know exactly when we’re going to be able to have this debate.”
Labrador, a former immigration lawyer, quit the House’s bipartisan immigration reform bill group in June in protest of terms that could possibly grant health insurance to undocumented immigrants.
The evolution of the Republicans’ argument can best be seen with Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who — with an atypically large 40 percent Hispanic-constituent district — was seen to be one of the few Republican congressman that embodied a pro-reform stance. On Aug. 3, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Denham publicly voiced support for the Senate’s path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “Given the parameters that are in the Senate bill — yes,” Denham said. “My hesitation is that when I talk to people in my district, ‘a pathway to citizenship’ always means something different to different people.”
Again, on Aug. 8, Denham was quoted in the Modesto Bee: “The Senate bill won’t get a vote in the House, and it’s something that could have helped this community. I am frustrated. I thought we’d get this done before the August work period. I think the Senate made tremendous progress. It was done bipartisan and I thought that would be enough to get the House moving forward.”
Finally, as reported by Politico on Aug. 15, he said: “I want to make sure that we’re addressing all aspects and having a full debate in front of the American people. I think part of the challenge is we’re talking about bits and pieces and not allowing the full debate to happen where people can engage in the overall discussion.”
On Aug. 27, however, came this: “Congressman Denham has said since the Senate bill passed in June that he thought it made great progress,” Denham spokeswoman Jordan Langdon told the Washington Post. “Many of the provisions of the Senate bill, passed on a bipartisan basis, have his support. However, he believes the Senate bill is flawed, and that the strongest immigration reform legislation will come out of a conference between the two chambers.”
When asked if Denham would oppose the Senate bill when it comes to a vote, Langdon stated, “Correct.”
A divided camp
This political conundrum — that immigration reform does not directly benefit the re-election efforts of most House Republicans and indeed may harm them — runs afoul of the political reality facing the rest of the Republican Party: that the party cannot be competitive in the future without increased minority support. With Texas, New Mexico and California already ‘minority-majority’ states — where the combined minority population exceeds the White population — and with the U.S. Census Bureau projecting that the nation will be minority-majority by 2043 — while a full half of the nation’s under-5 population comprises racial or ethnic minorities today — the traditional Republican calculus that relied solely on the White vote no longer works.
Despite this, with most Republican districts drawn “safe” by redistricting efforts that created racially- and ideologically-homogeneous districts, few House Republicans fear a Democratic upswing in their districts. For most House Republicans, immigration is an “another-district” issue; something irrelevant to the situation as it is currently drawn. With recent polling such as the recent NBC-Esquire poll showing that only one in four in the American center supports a path to citizenship for those that came here illegally, many House Republicans feel assured that taking a punt on immigration reform will not reflect badly on them in the long-term.
What most House Republicans fear is other House Republicans — namely, Tea Party Republicans who can and have mounted primary challenges against vulnerable mainstream Republicans they feel do not hold to a conservative-enough line. As these primary challengers will likely win a Republican primary but lose a general election, these challenges reflect an absolute threat to the Republicans’ control of the House.
A planned distraction?
All of this begs a very interesting and possibly unanswerable question: was the shutdown an intentional attempt to kill the discussion on immigration reform? Let’s consider the evidence: the House Republican caucus almost immediately broke down along Tea Party/mainstream lines upon receiving the Senate immigration bill. The House Republicans telegraphed their intentions to shelve immigration reform for the perceivable future. The Senate and the White House were putting enormous pressure on the House to do something. The House agreed to attempt a defunding of the Affordable Care Act — knowing that this approach had failed 40-odd times before, knowing that the White House’s consent to repeal a passed law under the threat of shutdown would create a precedent that would undo the ability to pass legislation in this country and with the understanding that the speaker himself rejected the defunding idea originally. Finally, immediately after the shutdown, the House indicated a hard-line resistance to resuming immigration reform talks.
In all, there is enough to raise suspicions. However, suspicion does not equal guilt. For those who are conspiracy theorists, however, there is plenty here to form a thesis, a situation where the Republicans can blame the president exclusively — even though the president was not involved in the shutdown negotiations — and can dodge an issue that was tearing the party by using it as a shield.
“I think it’d be crazy for the House Republican leadership to enter into negotiations with him on immigration,” Labrador told reporters on the eve of the shutdown deal. “And I’m a proponent of immigration reform. So I think what he’s done over the last two and a half weeks — he’s trying to destroy the Republican Party. And I think that anything we do right now with this president on immigration will be with that same goal in mind: which is to try to destroy the Republican Party and not to get good policies.”