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July 30, 2013 10:54 AM Devising an Immaculate Death for Immigration Reform

By Ed Kilgore

Like Matt Yglesias, I read Robert Costa’s highly indulgent interview with Mitch McConnell yesterday and thought the saturnine Kentuckian’s effort to use the Compromise of 1850 as a template for immigration reform was a mite strange. But Matt usefully went to the trouble of breaking it down for us:

Remember the Compromise of 1850? In case you don’t, the key provisions were that the north got California admitted as a free state, slave-owning Texas got a massive financial bailout, slave auctions were banned in the District of Columbia, and a much more severe Fugitive Slave Act was put into place. Under the terms of the Act, any law enforcement official anywhere in the United States was obligated to arrest any black person who some white southerner was willing to swear was his property.
Not a great all-around moment for the United States Congress in my opinion. But also not even remotely applicable to the immigration situation. Recall that the state of play on immigration is this. The Gang of 8 drafted a comprehensive immigration reform bill that obtained 68 votes in the United States Senate. It appears likely that a very similar bill could obtain majority support in the United States House of Representatives. The problem is that the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives won’t bring the bill to the floor for a vote. This is absolutely his right as a party leader, but the GOP could also waive that right if they wanted to. Their unwillingness to do so is what’s preventing a bipartisan bill from being enacted. Breaking the bill down into separate elements each of which would be separately subject to the Hastert Rule wouldn’t change anything. The issue here isn’t that a comprehensive bill can’t get majority support, it’s that a comprehensive bill can’t get a floor vote. The 1850 equivalent would be if Southern Democrats used the fact that they were a majority of the Democratic caucus to prevent California statehood from getting a vote, even though the combined weight of Northern Democrats and Whigs was enough to give it majority support.

It’s increasingly clear that the main concern of congressional Republicans about immigration reform is to spread the blame for its demise, if, as seems very likely, no feasible bill can overcome the Hastert Rule. There’s another article out today from National Journal’s Chris Frates based on House Republican sources that tries to characterize John Boehner’s decision against action on immigration reform prior to the August recess as part of some sort of genius strategy to “slow walk” legislation through the House. There is zero evidence that Boehner has any actual strategy for securing final enactment of immigration reform in the House, and if the ultimate idea is to scrap the Hastert Rule and allow a House vote on the Senate bill, then the obvious thing to do is to execute that maneuver quickly, not slowly.

As WaPo’s Greg Sargent has been pointing out for months now, there is almost certainly a majority for the Senate bill, as enacted, in the House, and all Boehner has to do to get the whole saga over with is to bring it up for a vote. Delays and separate-bill maneuvers and evasions and blame-shifting don’t change that dynamic at all. So Yglesias’ conclusion is spot on:

The bottom line here is that if immigration reform doesn’t pass, it’ll be because Republican leaders didn’t want it to pass and Republican House members who say they do want an immigration bill to pass weren’t willing to challenge their leadership with a discharge petition. But Republicans somehow want immigration reform to die an immaculate death in which nobody in particular killed it.

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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