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June 18, 2013 12:29 PM Pass Immigration Reform, Save the Filibuster

By Ed Kilgore

Much of the buzz about Ryan Lizza’s vast New Yorker (paywall protected) piece offering an insider look at the development of the Senate’s immigration reform legislation has revolved around a blind quote from a Marco Rubio staffer suggesting that U.S. employees displaced by immigrants are losers who shouldn’t be protected by their own government from the competition. Indeed, Jonathan Chait wrote a whole column calling this the “gaffe that threatens immigration reform.”

But what I found most interesting in Lizza’s piece was the revelation that the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform effort began very self-consciously as an effort to prove filibuster reform wasn’t necessary—or at least that’s what charter Gang member John McCain claimed:

McCain was arguing, in effect, that if the Senate was going to continue to demand the need for a super-majority, it also had to show that it could pass significant legislation. And, like it or not, that meant working with Obama on one of the defining issues of his Presidency.

If the filibuster did not exist (or was not used so routinely), of course, then odds are a bill similar to or more liberal than the Gang of Eight legislation would have already passed the Senate, and the chamber would not be spending close to a month debating and dealing with amendments designed to boost support to 60 or 70 votes, many of which threaten to blow up the whole process. The standard excuse for this exercise is that its bipartisan nature will better “position” the legislation for consideration in the House, or—more hazily—will “build momentum” for the bill in the House. The former meme seems to contemplate that there is a chance John Boehner will ignore the fruits of his own chamber’s committee system and spring the Senate bill as passed on the House, to be passed by a coalition in which Republicans are junior partners. And the latter “momentum” idea is classic Beltway-talk based on the idea that House Republicans won’t be able to resist a good bipartisan bandwagon, which sort of ignores the fact that large numbers of them view their very purpose in life to be to the ambushing and destruction of such vehicles.

As regular readers know, I’m more skeptical than most of my center-left colleagues about the likelihood of this Rube Goldberg machine producing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that the president can sign. Even if a decent bill comes out of the Senate, the House will almost certainly either pass its own bill or kill the whole enterprise, which means at best a large, fractious House-Senate conference committee—a bicameral version of the Gang of Eight with more problematic membership—which will aim at developing an entirely new bill whose fate will be entirely up in the air. It is not at all clear to me that the Gang of Eight structure in the Senate—or for that matter, the Gang of Seven (now that Raul Labrador has defected) in the House—has really changed the residual partisan dynamics much at all, other than investing a lot of Senate Democrats in the political career of Marco Rubio.

The other thing to keep in mind is that if the Gang does prevail in the Senate and McCain’s right about its underlying purpose, then when we move into the scheduled mid-summer fight over the filibuster, opponents of reform are going to tout the immigration bill as an example of the “genius of the Senate” and argue that the filibuster actually forces bipartisan cooperation rather than simple obstruction of the majority by the minority. Let’s hope Harry Reid—described by McCain in Lizza’s account as a silent partner in this whole Gang scheme to save the filibuster—doesn’t agree, or is prevailed upon to keep his agreement to himself.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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