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Immigration Endgame
The GOP is in a tough spot.

House Speaker John Boehner

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Andrew Stiles

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether immigration-reform legislation will be signed into law before the 2014 midterms. The issue is not dead by any means, but there is only a slim array of options available to House GOP leaders and Gang of Eight supporters if they want to produce something that President Obama can sign.

It is safe to rule out the possibility that House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) will bring the Senate-passed comprehensive reform bill to the House floor for a vote, thus allowing it to pass with primarily Democratic support. House Republicans are increasingly distrustful of President Obama when it comes to immigration reform, and are especially wary of “comprehensive” legislation. At more than 1,000 pages long, the Gang of Eight bill would almost certainly be met with near-unanimous GOP opposition in the House.

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Some liberals have celebrated the fact that three House Republicans — just over 1 percent of the GOP conference — have signed on to a comprehensive reform package being pushed by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.). The proposal is essentially identical to the Senate legislation and incorporates a border-security measure drafted by Representative Michael McCaul (R., Texas), who not only opposes Pelosi’s plan, but also the notion of entering a conference committee with the Senate, something most conservatives strongly oppose. Pelosi’s comprehensive plan is no more viable than the Gang of Eight’s.

House leaders say they are committed to a “step-by-step” approach to immigration reform but have thus far declined to elaborate precisely what that means. Staunch opponents of the Gang of Eight plan favor an approach that would involve the Houses passing a single piece of legislation dealing with a specific issue such as border security, sending that bill to Senate, and then waiting until it has been approved, signed, and implemented before addressing any other aspects of immigration reform.

But critics fear that the House leadership’s desired strategy is to introduce a series of individual bills  (dealing with issues of border security, interior enforcement, guest workers, and citizenship for at least some illegal immigrants), pass them “step by step” with the full intention of cobbling them together into a comprehensive final package and potentially taking it to conference with the Senate. This concern has only been exacerbated by the leadership’s continued refusal to explicitly rule out this scenario.

Even if that is the leadership’s preferred route, getting there won’t be easy. Conservative opposition is strong. McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, was unequivocal in his opposition, telling conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that the Republican position should be: “We’re not going to conference with the Senate, period.” Even Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), who helped write the Gang of Eight bill, has warned that “any effort to use a limited bill as a ruse to trigger a conference that would then produce a comprehensive bill would be counterproductive.

According to Representative Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), Speaker Boehner does not support a conference with the Senate bill. “It will go over one bill at a time, and if there is any kind of a conference, it will be on specific bills that we send over,” Salmon said last month at a gathering of conservative lawmakers.

As it stands, two pieces of (currently nonexistent) legislation are likely to provide the framework for a comprehensive reform plan that President Obama and Senate Democrats could ultimately accept: the so-called KIDS Act, which would offer citizenship to younger immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, and another proposal rumored to be in the works that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship through existing legal channels, which reportedly has the support of influential Republicans such as Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) and Paul Ryan (R., Wis.). Given the furious extent to which big business groups are lobbying for an immigration-reform bill, and the GOP’s own political insecurities on the issue, it is not inconceivable that a majority of House Republicans could end up backing such a proposal, even if the conservative base revolts.

Senator Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), a member of the Gang of Eight, recently said as much in an interview with the Arizona Republic, arguing that a proposal that stops short of the “special pathway to citizenship” in the Senate bill could give House Republicans the political cover necessary to advance immigration reform. The plan has also been tentatively embraced by prominent Gang of Eight supporters such as Frank Sharry of America’s Voice and Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum.

Should the House introduce these proposals, Democrats would be unlikely to oppose them, given that they would represent the best chance for an immigration-reform bill to be signed into law. Passing legislation dealing with other issues, such as border security, would become a mere formality, and the political momentum to negotiate a final compromise would only increase. At that point, an official conference would not even be necessary, as lawmakers could iron out a deal via informal, bicameral negotiations.

If that happens, there may not be a whole lot to negotiate, as many of the proposals introduced by the House thus far are relatively similar to the provisions in the Gang of Eight bill — with the exception of the SAFE Act, which has the greatest potential to complicate a deal in this scenario. The SAFE Act, which has already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, would increase the flexibility of state and local law-enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law, something liberals fear would lead to racist policies.

However, critics of the Gang of Eight plan doubt that Republicans would be willing to put up much of a fight this far along in the process; the Republicans would, at best, be politically outmaneuvered by Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and agree to some superficial concessions.

At the end of the day, if House Republicans fail to advance a broader citizenship bill, but do manage to pass the KIDS Act, that may be sufficient to ensure a deal. In fact, that may be a preferable outcome from the Democrats’ perspective, as they will have secured a policy win that has repeatedly evaded them, while retaining the ability to attack Republicans for blocking citizenship for illegal immigrants not covered under the KIDS Act.

Whatever the outcome, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which President Obama signs an immigration-reform bill into law that does not leave the Democratic party in near-unanimous revelry, and the GOP in even greater disarray.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.



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