Washington Watch: Immigration bill could be Democrats’ win-win

Some of the fiercest political battles in Washington are not Republicans vs. Democrats but Republicans vs Republicans.

July 3, 2013 21:43
US SENATE Republican leader Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Some of the fiercest political battles in Washington are not Republicans vs. Democrats but Republicans vs Republicans. The Democrats look uncharacteristically unified while their partisan rivals are a seething mix of libertarians, tea partiers, religious conservatives, pro-business fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, old-guard GOPers, some lonely moderates and a perplexed leadership.

Their conflicting factional agendas are on display in the battle over immigration reform.

Republicans are split at least three ways over the issue: the pragmatists, the rejectionists and the obstructionists.

The pragmatists know they need to win back some of the 71 percent of Hispanics who voted Democrat in 2012 if they want to return to the White House in 2016, and they feel immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship is their best hope. The rejectionists see immigration as a border enforcement problem and the 11 million undocumented aliens currently in the country as criminals who don’t deserve citizenship or, heaven forbid, the right to vote.

For the obstructionists, led by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), the highest priority is making sure Barack Obama doesn’t win on this or any other issue before Congress. That explains why the entire Senate GOP leadership voted against the bill which passed the Senate last week on a 68-32 vote that included 16 Republicans.

Former transportation secretary Ray LaHood, the lone Republican in Obama’s first-term cabinet, said his party, particularly McConnell, put “their own personal feelings against the president” ahead of “putting people back to work.” The former congressman from Peoria said McConnell’s goal is “don’t give Obama any victories.”

The bill is on its way to the House, where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has declared it DOA and said his party will write its own version over the next six months but won’t bring anything to the House floor that isn’t backed by a majority of his members (the so-called Hastert rule).

Even then, whatever emerges will not include a pathway to citizenship that Democrats and Obama want.

Boehner’s dilemma is he’s torn between deciding whether he wants to make history or be history.

If he brings up a bill with a citizenship pathway – opponents call it amnesty – and without a majority of his caucus, his party’s right wing, which tried to dump him earlier, is likely to overthrow him and install one of their own.

Besides, the Hispanic vote is not as important to House members as it is to Senate and presidential candidates.

The GOP’s old guard is worried that the party has become too white, too conservative and too male to succeed in today’s far more diverse demographic climate.

Major party donors say the party is widely seen as intolerant toward minorities, as in 2012 when in addition to losing 71% of Hispanic voters it also lost 73% of Asian Americans, 70% of Jews and 95% of African Americans.

The Senate bill has the backing of major Jewish organizations and most Jewish voters, and is one more reason Jews, like Hispanics, are likely to remain in the Democratic column for years to come.

Fred Malek, a major GOP donor and fund-raiser, warned, “We will never again win a national election unless we embrace policies more appealing to the large, growing and influential group of Hispanics in our country.”

But these big givers aren’t going to stop supporting the GOP over immigration, and the pols know it.

Especially in the House, where minority voters aren’t that important.

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans represent safely gerrymandered red districts where Hispanics are less than 10% of the population, and they don’t have to fret about a Democratic opponent in the next election, but they do have to beware of a primary threat from their right if they appear too lenient on immigration.

“The party’s base is increasingly dominated by a highly energized bloc of voters with extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues,” according to Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center.

While that counts for House candidates, he added, it “also keep[s] the party out of the White House” because of its failure to “appeal to a broader cross section of the [national] electorate.”

As much as Democrats want to see immigration reform become law, some may privately believe defeat could be a blessing in disguise. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), one of the bipartisan gang of eight who drafted the Senate bill, tried to explain that to his Republican brethren.

Republican defeat of reform can spell disaster for the party in the 2016 presidential race, he warned.

The GOP is “in a demographic death spiral” if it blocks passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

Many opponents couch their objections in security and enforcement terms – these people came here illegally and should not be rewarded for their crimes with amnesty, they say.

Border enforcement is a valid issue, and the Senate put billions in this bill to enhance security along the Mexican border. But for many of the opponents, that’s just an excuse, as shown in some of the amendments offered by the bill’s diehard opponents.

McConnell said he needs proof the border is “secure” as a precondition for reform.

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that for many opponents the problem isn’t really security; it’s race.

The argument of opponents that these immigrants are a financial drain was undercut when the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office showed the opposite is true. Reform will cut nearly $1 billion from the deficit over the next 20 years by adding more than 10 million legal residents and taxpayers who will be paying into Social Security and Medicare even though they won’t be eligible for benefits while they seek citizenship, CBO said.

By blocking serious immigration reform containing a path to citizenship and denying Obama a legislative achievement, Republicans may be handing Democrats a winning issue to use against them in the 2014 and 2016 elections, not only among Hispanics but with Jews and other minorities as well.


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