It's Not Gonna Happen on Immigration

Fawn Johnson
National Journal

It will take a miracle for major immigration legislation to pass this year, despite the energy that will be demonstrated in the Senate this week. The Senate has done this already, in 2006. The House has not, at least not since a sizable chunk of its members were children, in 1986.

The House is slogging along on a piece-by-piece approach to immigration that does nothing but stretch out the debate until there's nothing left but wisps of ideas on work visas, local police enforcement, and electronic verification of workers. The House may not kill the bill outright, but the GOP players are passing the ball around until the clock runs out.

The Senate, meanwhile, is on track to comfortably pass this week a sweeping immigration bill that would legalize millions of undocumented immigrants. A last-minute omnibus amendment released Friday to dramatically boost troops on the border (which also includes other goodies for individual senators) has cleared the way for final passage later in the week. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a leader in the immigration effort, said on CNN's State of the Union Sunday that two-thirds of the Senate is already in favor of the bill.

Senators probably can make their weekend barbeques, too.

But then the Senate has to wait for the House. When members return from their July 4th recess, they will have four weeks of deliberation before they take off for a lengthier recess in August.

The House Judiciary Committee has yet to tackle the most difficult issues on immigration—what to do with the current undocumented population and how to handle the future flow of low-skilled immigrants. There are no signs that the committee is working on any such bills. We don't know who would sponsor them or, on the off chance that someone actually puts pen to paper, that such measures could even get out of committee.

What about the House floor? The best hope for the immigration legislation to continue moving forward would be an "immigration week" in the House in July, in which members vote on several different bills to set up a far more conservative proposal than the solution posed in the Senate.

Under this theoretical "immigration week," the House would vote on a severe enforcement measure to give local police the authority to apprehend, investigate, and detain people suspected of residing in the country illegally. Members would vote to mandate electronic verification of employees.

The House might vote on a decidedly anti-union agriculture bill to give temporary work visas to undocumented farm workers but not a path to citizenship. But last week's unexpected and embarrassing defeat of the farm bill, courtesy of 62 feisty tea partiers, may give House GOP leaders pause before they bring up that one.

Only one of the smaller immigration bills that the Judiciary Committee will have ready for the floor in early July, on high-skill work visas, has the slightest chance of getting help from Democrats. The pro-business New Democrat Coalition has gone out of its way to praise Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., for proposing to boost the number of H-1B visas available for tech firms, but there are parts of the bill they don't support.

Yet even the moderate Democrats are lining up behind the Senate immigration bill instead of the House approach on high-skilled immigration. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who leads the immigration task force for the New Democrats, told National Journal that he does not want a high-tech bill to be a "distraction" from the comprehensive legislation being embraced by the Senate.

Somewhere in there, a bipartisan group of seven House members could release their own comprehensive proposal on immigration reform. But none of the members of this "gang" can tell you what happens to it next. They have no commitment from Goodlatte to push it through the Judiciary Committee, and all they know from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is that Goodlatte calls the shots.

Then comes August, the month in which legislation dies. The last time the Senate passed a major immigration bill in 2006, House Republicans used the August recess to kill it by staging a series of hearings around the country that did nothing but rile up conservatives against it.

Let's not forget the health care bill, which only passed after President Obama forced it through the Senate with Democratic votes using a parliamentary tactic that isn't available on immigration. It was in August of 2009 that Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, then the ranking member of the Finance Committee, definitively announced his opposition to the health care bill, ensuring that GOP senators would line up behind him. And at that time, Democrats controlled the House, which is how Obama pushed that bill over the finish line.

When lawmakers return to the Capitol in September, they will be facing another financial crisis as they debate raising the country's debt ceiling. The four- to six-week countdown toward extreme limitations on government payments to Social Security or military operations will do two things: It will suck all the life out of any deliberative legislative effort, immigration included, and it will polarize the political parties. It will be far from fertile ground for the biggest immigration overhaul in 30 years.

Proponents of the Senate's immigration package are hoping that a strong vote this week among senators will push the more reluctant House Republicans to act, if only to get the emotional issue out of the way. "We know there's going to be hard-line opponents. We know there's a number of people, [Rep.] Paul Ryan, [D-Wis.], and others, who are in favor of this and will be pitching it to their colleagues.… That's going to be the group that's interesting to watch," said America's Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry.

But Sharry acknowledged the most problematic hurdle to passing an immigration overhaul—support from a majority of House Republicans—still eludes proponents. "The House leadership will try to muster 120 votes for a path to citizenship. I find it hard to think they will get there," he said.

If House Republicans keep deliberating at their current pace, the bill will die from sheer talk.