The Gang of Eight’s Peculiar Strategy

by Yuval Levin

The legislative strategy pursued by the Gang of Eight in the last few days strikes me as a little strange. The response to the CBO analysis of the bill—which said it would reduce the deficit but do fairly little to reduce illegal immigration—has been to throw money at the border, in an effort to keep alive the possibility of getting 70 votes in the Senate. Both the means and the end of that strategy seem ill-considered, from the point of view of the bill’s champions.

The means seem unwise because surely a major concession on border security is the most plausible card they could play with the House when the time comes, and playing it now leaves them with nothing obvious to give the House later on—no significant-seeming change to the bill that Democrats could live with but that might move some meaningful number of Republicans. Assuming they are not concerned about getting the 60 votes they need to actually pass their bill in the Senate (a number they seem likely to reach without the Corker amendment or a similar concession), making this concession now makes the ultimate enactment of a bill along the lines of theirs less likely, and perhaps significantly less likely.

They’re doing it, we are told, to get to 70 votes. But why is that an important goal? By what logic would it make a Republican member of the House more likely to vote for the bill? A 70 vote margin made up of all 54 Senate Democrats and 16 of the chamber’s 46 Republicans isn’t going to move a lot of House Republicans. Surely the number of votes doesn’t amount to a substantive argument for the bill, and as a political argument I don’t see why the prospect of aligning with Senate Democrats against nearly two thirds of the Senate Republicans would be appealing to a skeptical House member.

The more likely message that a larger Senate margin would send to the House is that there is a lot of room for changes in the bill. A cushion of 10 votes would suggest that the bill could move some distance to the right without losing its chances of passage in the Senate. Revisions (or a different bill) with a more conservative approach to border security, the legalization process, legal immigration levels, or whatever else might draw more House Republicans could appeal (for the same reasons) to Senate Republicans who oppose the current Gang of Eight bill while not turning off all the Democrats. If the Gang of Eight bill gets 70 votes, a revised House version that, on its return to the Senate, could get 15 or 20 more Senate Republicans on board could afford to lose 25 or 30 Senate Democrats and still pass the Senate (assuming it got a vote). A larger Senate majority makes House passage (or even consideration) of an unamended Senate bill even less likely, not more. That at least is the lesson suggested by the budget battles of the last few years (and of much House-Senate history besides).

Maybe the House can’t get its act together enough to pass a different bill. Or maybe the Senate Democrats would hold together well and hold off such a bill if it did pass the House. But from the point of view of the Gang of Eight, it’s hard to see why they would want to find out. If they’ve got the votes to get a bill through the Senate without giving away their most plausible future bargaining chips and without making major changes in the House more plausible, why not just pass it?

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