The two big political stories out of the United States in the last week both centre on the Republican Party, but they seem to convey opposing messages. On Tuesday, Republicans in the House of Representatives surrendered unconditionally in the fight over the US debt ceiling. The Republican leadership sent a “clean” measure for increasing the ceiling, with no conditions, to a vote, knowing that it would pass – as it did, 221 to 201, even though most Republicans still voted against.
But in the other story, prospects for the passage of immigration reform have dwindled, as Republicans increasingly shy away from the idea. A brief flurry of optimism was put to rest last Thursday when speaker John Boehner all but ruled out agreement on a measure this year.
It’s been a while since we looked at immigration reform, of which the key point is the attempt to open up a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico. In the middle of last year things looked reasonably positive, but the mood soon turned. It’s been up and down since then, but a consensus has now emerged that nothing is likely to happen until after mid-term congressional elections in November.
There has never been any likelihood that the majority of Republicans would actually embrace reform. The question is whether the majority would be sufficiently tolerant of the idea to allow a reform bill to come to a vote in the House, where a few Republicans would vote with the majority of Democrats to pass it.
That in turn depends on how worried the Republicans are about their standing with non-white voters, especially Hispanics. Last week’s change of heart seems to have been substantially driven by a sense of optimism – that the party is doing well enough to not need to concern itself too much with reaching out beyond its traditional voter base, and that the attempt to do so could be a dangerous distraction.
Quoting “Republicans knowledgeable about the issue,” a New York Times report said that “reaching any agreement has become appreciably harder because of a Republican reluctance to get caught up in an internal feud and stomp on their increasingly bright election prospects.”
Immigration is an emotional issue, so bringing it back to the forefront obviously risks exposing the party’s internal tensions. And as has always been the case, there’s a tendency from the Republican point of view to see it as a lose-lose issue: if reform fails, they will get the blame, yet the Obama administration will take the credit if it succeeds.
Not everyone thinks the issue is dead. Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic says that “Lots of senior Democrats think Boehner still wants a deal,” and suggests that he “is trying simultaneously to reassure nervous conservatives that he won’t cut a bad deal, to give Republicans more leverage should more serious negotiations begin, and to create a handy excuse in case legislation simply proves impossible to achieve.”
It’s also not clear that the decision – if that’s what it is – to get the midterms out of the way first makes good tactical sense. If the Republicans do as well as they’re hoping, the result will be an influx of new, largely hard-right GOP legislators, who presumably will be even less sympathetic to immigration reform than the current crop. On the other hand, if they do unexpectedly badly, their negotiating position vis-a-vis the administration will just deteriorate further.
Jon Chait, who last year expressed the view that the opponents of reform were just “going through the motions”, now points to the risks that postponing the issue would present for the 2016 Republican presidential campaign:
Yet, once the midterms pass, the presidential primary will quickly command attention. Republicans again will be competing for the loyalty of a heavily white, distinctly anti-immigrant electoral base, and the candidates will again face pressure to lock themselves into positions that will alienate Latino and Asian voters. They could still win anyway if the economy is weak enough, or some other major scandal envelopes the Obama administration. But in an electorate that is both increasingly hardened in its partisan inclinations, and growing steadily more Democratic-leaning in its basic shape, the GOP’s outlook is, if not hopeless, decidedly grim.
Either way, the devil-may-care attitude to immigration reform sits oddly with the sober realism of the debt ceiling vote. But perhaps there’s only so much realism that the Republican caucus can deal with at a time.