Immigration: Game Over in the Senate, How Should House Republicans Respond?

Posted: Jun 24, 2013 10:09 AM

Once Friday's immigration "breakthrough" took root in the Senate, final passage of the amended 'Gang of Eight' legislation became a fait accompli.  Barring a seismic political disruption, Harry Reid will file for cloture on the Hoeven-Corker substitute amendment later today, clearing the way for final passage by week's end.  It's the allure of a fairly speedy approval process that likely explains why prominent 'gang' members were happy to abandon their pretextual grievances against the Cornyn amendment and throw their arms around the new plan.  Byron York's Senate sources are telling him that this ballgame is over:

Now, after a few days of on-and-off consideration of the bill, one well-connected Senate source concludes: “This thing’s over.” As the source sees it, the Senate will vote on the still-unreleased Hoeven-Corker amendment on Monday.  And then, Majority Leader Harry Reid will move for a final vote. “We’ll vote on Corker, a couple of remaining pending amendments, and then cloture on the final bill as amended by Corker, and call it a day,” says the aide. By “call it a day,” the source means the Senate will pass the bill. In all, it’s been a much shorter process than many predicted when the bill was first introduced, and shorter even than Reid predicted just three days ago when this week’s debate began...the Senate fight is pretty much over. Much of the discussion of the bill has focused on whether the Gang of Eight can draw 70 votes for the bill or will be content to pass it with just 60 votes. That’s not much of a debate. The bill passes either way, most likely by next Thursday at the latest.

When I spoke to Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) on Hugh Hewitt's show late last week, he sounded resigned to this outcome, too, citing a pervasive sense of "inevitability" inside the upper chamber.  At this point, the only remaining drama seems to be whether proponents will corral enough support to hit their symbolic 70-vote target.  Whip counters think it's a jump ball, but Lindsey Graham is says he's "confident" they'll get there.  Ultimately, the final tally is a footnote.  So convinced is Reid that they've got this thing in the bag that he took to the floor on Friday to offer a barely-hedged, maudlin tribute to Ted Kennedy -- days prior to the planned cloture vote, and before many Senators had even received a copy of the 1,200-page legislative language:


The details of the new bill, while interesting and theoretically important, are ancillary.  The Senate is preparing to make a statement.  A relatively overwhelming, bipartisan statement.  Thus, the central question becomes how the Republican-held House of Representatives will react.  Speaker Boehner has stated unequivocally that any bill that emerges from his chamber must have the support of a majority of the GOP caucus, which is no small thing.  Many conservatives have advocated a piecemeal approach; cracking the giant bill up into bite-sized portions, and weighing each measure on the merits.  If I were advising House Republicans, I'd recommend a different course: Embrace a comprehensive bill in the mold of Rep. Raul Labrador's plan.  Labrador calls for a potential path to citizenship for most of the millions of illegal immigrants who are already here, including a fast-track for the so-called "DREAMers."  Crucially, though, his proposal reverses the legalization and enforcement sequencing, spelling out a tough enforcement-first paradigm:

The starting place — the trigger for reforming and modernizing our immigration system — must be securing our borders and effectively enforcing our immigration laws before any legal status is granted to those here illegally. Border agencies and local authorities must be given the tools they need to effectively perform their duties. The Obama administration must allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to enforce existing laws and apprehend any undocumented person they encounter, not just those who have committed violent crimes. In addition, the Border Patrol must have access to all border areas, including federally managed scenic lands where motor vehicle use is restricted. The border fences, both virtual and physical, must be completed. However, fences alone will not prevent illegal immigration. Perhaps 35% to 40% of the illegal population entered the U.S. legally and simply never left. That is why border enforcement must be coupled with strict interior enforcement. We must create an effective entry and exit system that can track visa overstays and use a verification system, like E-Verify, to ensure that employers hire only legally authorized workers.

Labrador's plan isn't necessarily perfect; it can be tweaked, revised and amended.  But the key would be to craft and pass a workable path to permanent legal status and citizenship, triggered only when the new border security and enforcement standards are implemented and certified.  If Senate Democrats considered the mild Cornyn amendment a "poison pill" (those marching orders were handed down from the president himself), House Democrats would practically faint over a bill like this.  Fine.  Let them vote against it, then relentlessly attack them for opposing reform and standing in the way of common-sense progress.  And although the House bill would inevitably be denounced by many Senators and the White House as unrealistic, divisive, and the like, Republicans' rejoinder to those criticism would be pretty straightforward: 

"Our immigration reform legislation shares much in common with the Senate's version.  We both embrace a path to citizenship.  We both show preference for DREAMers.  We both support a screening process for would-be provisionally-legal residents.  We both support English proficiency.  And we both demand dramatically increased border security.  The biggest difference between our competing visions involves timing and priorities.  Ours puts security and enforcement first.  A secure border is a prerequisite for mass legalization because we think the government has broken enough promises already.  Once the government can demonstrate that it has finally gotten the job done, then we move to the important legalization step.  There would be bipartisan incentives to accomplish these goals. 

The Senate version, by contrast, offers immediate, sweeping legalization to millions, then promises to secure the border -- serving up the same promises and soft "triggers," of which most Americans have grown skeptical over the years.  Let's have this debate.  The House and Senate bills share very similar goals: A revamped immigration system that both deals humanely with those who are here already, and overhauls border security and enforcement so that we don't have to revisit the exact same problem in a decade or two.  We think the government needs to prove itself to the American people on the border issue in order to earn the credibility to execute the legalization stage.  Our friends in the Senate think legalization should come first, and that we should all hope the border enforcement elements all go according to plan in the future.  Which approach do the American people support?"

Based on the preponderance of recent polling, House Republicans would be playing a strong hand if they embrace this model.  The question is whether they can summon the clarity and unity of purpose to pass a Labrador-esque bill, without which they're much more susceptible to charges of blind obstructionism.

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