House Republicans head home for the August break having done little to pass immigration reform, falling well short of Speaker John Boehner’s goal of voting on legislation before next week’s monthlong recess begins. But far from a failure of leadership, top House Republicans are casting the inaction as a tactical play designed to boost reform’s chances.
Keeping immigration on the back-burner helps avoid a recess filled with angry town-hall meetings reminiscent of the heated August 2009 protests where the backlash against health care reform coalesced. Doing nothing also starves Democrats of a target, Republicans argue.
“August was a central part of our discussions. People don’t want to go home and get screamed at,” a House GOP leadership aide said.
Instead, they’ll go home and talk about the need to stop government overreach, trying to draw voters’ attention back to the now largely dormant IRS controversy and the dismantling of Obamacare, a message that plays well with the Republican base.
But more than that, Republicans say, the delay in dealing with immigration helps them internally.
After a special conference meeting on immigration July 10, Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy realized there was only enough support to pass tougher border security and, maybe, beefed up stateside enforcement before August.
But for Boehner, who by all accounts wants to see some kind of immigration reform pass, that raised serious strategic problems.
First, passing tougher enforcement measures before August would take all the momentum away from other more divisive measures, such as giving “Dreamers,” the children brought to the United States illegally, a legal option for staying in the country. While House leaders publicly insist on dealing with the immigration issues separately, they privately are wary of letting their piecemeal approach be taken out of context.
Second, voting on border security before August would hand Democrats a gift-wrapped political cudgel, a case that again paints Republicans as interested only in legislation that cracks down on immigrants. Or, as one senior House leadership aide put it, “all you did was pass bills that on the surface look discriminatory.” A month of ads smacking Republicans for being anti-immigrant was not a happy prospect.
So Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy have privately discussed holding off on immigration until October. (September has only nine legislative days that will be jammed with fiscal negotiations as House Republicans and Senate Democrats scramble to fund the government after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.) The August break gives Republicans time to chart a course on immigration ahead of a packed fall schedule that leaves little time for strategizing.
“The fall’s going to suck because you’ve got the CR. You’ve got immigration. You’ve got the debt limit. We have a nutrition bill we gotta do,” the aide said. “Our plate’s full, so we have to strategically map out how we’re going to do each step.”
Republicans discussed their options and decided there was no reason to pass legislation before August.
“There’s no rush on this. There’s no deadline. We want to get this done, and we want to get this done right,” another House leadership aide said.
Further hampering the effort, said a senior House leadership aide, is Republicans’ basic lack of trust in the president.
“Our members fundamentally don’t believe that this administration will enforce the parts of the bill that they don’t like,” the aide said.
Republicans also believe that Democrats’ unwillingness to work with them on a piecemeal approach is proof that they are more interested in scoring a political victory than a policy win. Democrats, for their part, argue that they’re not interested in passing legislation that doesn’t include a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
But that fight looks to have been postponed for at least two more months.