Immigration reform edges forward in the US

Yesterday morning (Australian time) the United States Senate held its first vote on comprehensive immigration reform. It wasn’t on the bill itself, only a motion to proceed to debate – no-one thinks that the current bill is going to be the final version – but it was still an impressive success: with 60 votes needed, the closure motion had 82 in favor and only 15 (all Republicans) against.

For their different reasons, both sides want a reform bill passed. For the Obama administration it would be another significant legislative achievement and would provide a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorised immigrants – who, not irrelevantly, might be expected to eventually vote Democrat. For the Republicans, it’s an essential step to try to prove to the voting public, particularly Hispanics, that they are not a bunch of crazy racists.

Speaking shortly before the Senate vote, the president pushed strongly for reform, calling the present system “broken” and saying it “hasn’t matched up with our most cherished values.” He made it clear that the bill as it stands is a compromise – “nobody is going to get everything that they want” – but indicated that he was basically happy with it and that, as he put it, “there’s no reason Congress can’t get this done by the end of the summer.”

Getting something like the present bill through the Senate won’t be very difficult. The problem is the House of Representatives, where the Republicans hold a majority and where Republican representatives tend to be further to the right and more beholden to nativist voters than their colleagues in the Senate.

Even so, the numbers are almost certainly there in the House as well, given that if the Democrats vote solidly they only need 17 Republicans to vote with them for a majority. But the Republican leadership, and particularly speaker John Boehner, have the power to prevent a measure they disapprove of being put to a vote.

So the current manoeuvring on the bill is mostly about what needs to be done to win over the House Republican leaders. Interviewed on ABC News this week, Boehner said “I would expect that a House bill will be to the right of where the Senate is,” but seemed clearly open to the idea of a bill being allowed to pass the House with only minority support among Republicans. There is a limit to how far he can go in this direction without alienating his rank-and-file, but if they are going to overthrow him then immigration is probably not the most likely issue.

The question then arises whether Republican attempts to amend the bill in the Senate, by the likes of John Cornyn and Rand Paul (both of whom voted to let debate proceed), are genuine moves for a compromise that’s necessary for its ultimate passage, or are really intended to sink reform by producing a bill that Democrats will be unable to support.

Molly Ball in the Atlantic looks at just that question, concluding that although some Republicans are irreconcilable, some like Paul are willing to support real reform: “reform proponents aren’t giving up on getting Paul’s vote, though they wonder how high a price they’ll be forced to pay for it.”

Jon Chait at New York magazine, who of course is no friend to the Republicans, is more confident that the party has no choice but to accept comprehensive reform:

[C]onservatives have not generated anything like the kind of outrage on immigration reform they need to overcome their party elite’s desire to pass a bill. In particular, they have oddly failed to organize around the one chokehold they control, Boehner’s ability to keep a bipartisan bill off the floor. It’s almost as if [Rush] Limbaugh and other conservative entertainers are themselves going through the motions, trying to maintain the loyalty of their own audience while failing to apply the pressure they actually need against the party leadership.

Over the next couple of months we’ll see if he’s right.


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