Chuck Schumer has spent the better part of a year saying how essential it is that immigration reform be dealt with in a comprehensive bill. But he has had a sudden change of heart. He now says he is fine with the incremental approach emerging in the House. Forgive us if we don’t believe that this is because Schumer has abandoned hope for his Gang of Eight bill and its instant amnesty paired with large-scale increases in low-skilled legal immigration. Nothing if not a shrewd political operator, Schumer knows that the best chance for the Gang of Eight bill is a House-Senate conference and that the only way to get there is incremental legislation in the House.
Incremental fixes to the immigration system make sense on the merits, and House Republicans understandably want to show that they favor their own set of reforms rather than oppose anything and everything. But incremental bills are destructive if their ultimate purpose is to get to a conference committee that would bless a version of the Gang of Eight bill. House leadership aides pooh-pooh the possibility of a conference committee. Well, then, there is a simple way to allay our fears and those of other opponents of the Gang of Eight — for Speaker Boehner to make a blood-oath commitment to oppose any conference committee.
We are, as a general matter, not as tough on the speaker as are some of our friends on the right. We understand he is dealt a tough hand controlling only one half of the legislative branch in a Democratic Washington. There are limits to his power. At times, as in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, he has been able to choose from a menu only of bad choices. But the immigration fight is different. It is relatively easy. All he has to do is say, “No.” As in, “No, we won’t pass anything like the Gang of Eight bill. No, we won’t have a conference with the Senate over it. If the Senate wants to pass our reforms, wonderful. Otherwise, we will see you after the midterm elections.”
Instead, Boehner was unwilling to say even what his own position is on immigration on Face the Nation a few weeks ago, repeatedly describing his role as that of a “facilitator.” This is, needless to say, not confidence-inspiring. The speaker has said in the past that he favors comprehensive reform, and there is enormous private pressure from the Republican establishment and donor class to pass a comprehensive bill by hook or crook to “put the issue behind us.”
This is foolish grounds for major, generational legislation and ignores the fact that the Gang of Eight bill is not even popular; a recent Washington Post–ABC News poll found that only 19 percent strongly supported it, while 30 percent strongly opposed, and only 32 percent wanted the House to vote on the Senate bill while 53 percent preferred piecemeal legislation. Republicans need to win more Latino voters, but the party won’t do it without developing greater appeal to all working-class voters — and flooding the labor market with cheap workers at the behest of Internet moguls and other business interests is not the way to do it.
It would be a travesty if the House leadership subverted the will of its conference to find a way to rescue the Gang of Eight bill. Speaker Boehner should crush Schumer’s hopes and give his word — no conference.