Politics & Policy

SAVE-ing Immigration Reform

A freshman Democrat exposes a party litmus test.

Something unorthodox occurred on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The House Republican leadership began pushing a “discharge petition” — a procedural maneuver designed to force a floor vote — on a piece of Democratic legislation.

The bill in question is the SAVE Act, authored by freshmen Congressman Heath Shuler (D., N.C.). As written, the SAVE Act’s most notable provisions would add 8,000 border-patrol agents, and within four years mandate that businesses use a government program to verify the legal citizenship of all employees.

#ad#The introduction of the bill was initially hailed as evidence that the Democratic leadership is serious about immigration reform. Exactly how serious they are remains an open question. This is reflected by the blistering language in Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner’s statement in support of Rep. Thelma Drake’s (R., Va.) filing of a discharge position on Tuesday: “In just the past year, this majority voted to cut funding for the border fence, opened the door for illegal immigrants to receive taxpayer-funded services without showing proof of citizenship, and overturned a successful GOP proposal to prohibit taxpayer-funded federal benefits from being awarded to illegal immigrants,” the statement said. “This is not what the American people expect from us, and since the majority leadership has not stepped up on this important matter, House Republicans will take the lead.”

Rosemary Jenks, the director of government relations for NumbersUSA, an organization that favors tighter immigration controls, notes there is already a movement afoot by the Democratic leadership to attach something to legislation which will either kill the legislation or add provisions that make it more palatable to the Hispanic caucus.

“Essentially the Democratic leadership has been trying to work out some deals with various different groups of Democrats, but the key is that they want congressman Schuler to sign off on them,” Jenks tells National Review Online. “So far he has stood very firmly against any form of amnesty, which is what the Hispanic caucus wants.” She says, “he is telling them that he doesn’t want extra visas — H2-B visas, or H1-B visas or amnesty visas added to his bill, that he wants it to come up for a vote the way it is.”

The House leadership also appears keenly aware that voter discontentment over border enforcement is a liability for Democrats in the fall. “It’ll be interesting because the Democratic leadership, from my understanding, is actually giving a pass to any Democrats from conservative districts who face serious challenges for reelection,” Jenks says. “They’re being allowed to sign the discharge petition without being punished by the party, because the Democratic leadership knows full well that these folks campaigned on this issue from an enforcement perspective and their constituents expect them to hold true to that position they staked out.” And more broadly, Jenks observed that Democrats have to keep their distance from the amnesty issue. “There’s no question that the Democratic leadership recognizes that this is an important issue for constituents and that some of their caucus will have to be seen as strong on enforcement and strongly opposed to any form of amnesty.”

Many of those voter liabilities cut across party lines, however. Many economically minded Republicans see the cheap labor provided by illegal immigration as beneficial and still other GOP members are afraid hawkish immigration positions will alienate voters in the U.S.’s fast growing Hispanic population.

So in this contentious environment over immigration, Democrats were caught flat footed when the GOP leadership pivoted and filed for the discharge position. Democrats appear to be surprised by how fast the petition is moving. As of Thursday afternoon, the petition has 169 signers — a majority of House members or 218 signatures are needed to force a vote.

If the SAVE Act passes the House, it will likely be with a majority of Republican votes and a minority of Democrats. But more than that, a vote on the SAVE Act is a chance for Republicans to root out any lackluster support on an issue that has proven motivating for voters and wield it against congressional Democrats in the fall.

“Undoubtedly there are some of the 49 Democrats that have co-sponsored the bill have co-sponsored it with the understanding that they would never have to vote on it,” Jenks says. “The Democratic leadership is not going to put this bill on the floor unless they have to.”

In the meantime, the House GOP leadership will be pushing hard to collect the necessary signatures before the end of the week (whenever that may be), before Congress’s two-week Easter break. The more time that passes, the more likely it is that the Democratic leadership will find a way to compromise the original legislation to make it more appealing to liberal and pro-amnesty factions in the party.

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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