A month into the new Republican-controlled Congress, a comprehensive immigration-reform solution seems as far away as ever.
Though some Republicans last year argued that a GOP-run U.S. House and U.S. Senate might be inclined to tackle immigration reform early this year — and national Republicans have stressed the need to get the issue off the table before the 2016 presidential election — most observers now say there appears to be little chance for far-reaching legislation along the lines of the 2013 Senate-passed bill negotiated by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight.”
And despite the noise surrounding a Republican drive to undo President Barack Obama’s recent executive action to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and work on GOP border-security and workplace-verification legislation, some are skeptical that even those will ever reach Obama’s desk.
Immigration-reform advocates now say their best hope for reforms such as a pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants already in the country hinges on the 2016 elections: A new president will be elected and Democrats have an opportunity to win back the Senate. They are counting on the presidential-election-year turnout model, in which a broader electorate votes than during congressional midterms, to benefit pro-reform Democrats.
“Bottom line is, probably the next window of opportunity for immigration reform is 2017,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national organization that champions comprehensive immigration reform. “It’s a remarkable turn of events. You have the idea that they (Capitol Hill Republicans) are lurching so far to the right given the 2016 electoral map that they’re bordering on political suicide.”
Republicans counter that Obama killed any chance for a comprehensive bill with his unilateral moves on deportation. Obama and his allies say he acted only after it became clear last year that House Republicans were intransigent on the issue. But now even U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, two of the four Republican members of the Gang of Eight, acknowledge a replay of the 2013 Senate bill appears unlikely.
The Gang of Eight bill, which went nowhere in the House after Senate passage, would have combined a massive border-security investment with a pathway to citizenship and a modernized visa system for foreign workers. GOP foes say the bill offered “amnesty” for immigrants who broke the law.
“A Gang of Eight kind of thing could happen if there is a comprehensive bill that could move, and I don’t think there is,” Flake told The Arizona Republic. “The president went piecemeal (with executive action), so it’s very tough to go comprehensive now.”
Flake said there is some skepticism on the Hill that the House and Senate can even come to terms on a border-security bill, which is a GOP priority.
“There are some in the House who have said we want to do a border bill, and you have others in the House saying, ‘Wait, if we do a border bill, it might be followed up by another bill,’ that this is the gateway bill to comprehensive reform,” Flake said.
Likewise, a House-passed attempt to defund Obama’s executive action through a homeland-security spending bill has run into procedural hurdles in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed. Democrats are not expected to cooperate with Republicans on the bill.
“I think we’ve seen the end of this movie: If Democrats won’t supply votes to proceed to the bill, they certainly aren’t going to supply them to get off the bill,” he added. “For my money, and time and effort, I’d rather spend time actually on immigration bills rather than this funding measure. I’ve always thought our response ought to be to put legislation on the president’s desk.”
In floor remarks Thursday, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called on Republicans to quit trying to tie the homeland-security spending to immigration.
“We would love to debate immigration. We’ve done it here on the Senate floor before,” Reid said. “It was a wonderful bipartisan debate, and we’re willing to do it again but the American people are crying out that we defend our homeland.”
McCain also said he worries about the fight over Obama’s executive action hampering homeland-security funding.
“I am angered and disturbed that the president would act in an unconstitutional fashion, but at the same time I think we cannot abandon our ability to defend the nation,” McCain told The Republic.
McCain, who is expected to seek a sixth Senate term in 2016, said the battle against the Islamic State, a terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, puts fresh urgency on the need to toughen the U.S.-Mexico border.
“With the rise of ISIS and the spread of Muslim radical extremism, then the absolute requirement for a secure border becomes even more important,” he said.
In other developments:
— The fiscally conservative Club for Growth, known for helping fund primary challengers to Republicans it deems are too liberal on economic issues, made news Tuesday after its president said the group would keep an eye on McCain’s upcoming race to see if a credible challenger emerges to his right. But Flake, a fiscal hawk that has long been supported by the club, reacted by giving McCain’s not-yet-announced re-election bid a pre-endorsement.
“McCain is going to be prepared for whatever comes — I support him,” said Flake, who as a U.S. House member was encouraged by the club to take on McCain as far back as 2003.
— Senate members met Wednesday for a bipartisan lunch, an idea that stemmed from “Rival Survival,” the Discovery Channel’s reality television show starring Flake and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., that aired in October. On that program, the Republican and the Democrat had to work together to survive on a remote Pacific Ocean island.
Flake said the senators didn’t discuss any issues at the first lunch, but, hopefully, will start to build trust across the aisle.
“Some of the more seasoned members talked about how the Senate worked in the past and then the new members talked about what they expected and what they wanted,” Flake said. “Good perspective.”