Debt Fight Threatens To Overshadow Obama’s Immigration Push

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January 3, 2013 10:45 a.m.

President Obama may be celebrating a victory on taxes over the House GOP this week, but the fiscal cliff agreement sets up an even nastier spending battle in the coming months, potentially complicating what was supposed to be his No. 1 legislative priority: immigration reform.Supporters of reform insist that Obama and Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time, especially given that the same demographic trends sending panicked Republicans to the negotiating table will persist.

“There’s still a 2014 election scheduled,” Laura Vazquez, a legislative analyst for the National Council of La Raza, told TPM. “The president wants to move quickly with the momentum coming out of the election, which gives us a chance to get started very soon — as soon as the inauguration happens we’re ready to go.”

Unfortunately for Obama and his reform allies, the fiscal cliff fight that dominated Washington’s attention since the election is only extended by the deal struck this week. Scheduled spending cuts to defense and domestic programs are postponed for two months, and Republicans are threatening a simultaneous standoff over the debt ceiling.

As the president made clear in his statement announcing the fiscal cliff deal, every minute spent on these issues eats at his other priorities, a list that now includes gun control as well: “We can settle this debate, or at the very least, not allow it to be so all-consuming all the time that it stops us from meeting a host of other challenges that we face — creating jobs, boosting incomes, fixing our infrastructure, fixing our immigration system, protecting our planet from the harmful effects of climate change, boosting domestic energy production, protecting our kids from the horrors of gun violence.”

Immigration advocates are still expecting big movement this month from the White House on comprehensive reform, especially in the president’s State of the Union address. With Republican leaders publicly calling for a debate on the issue before the 2014 elections in the hopes of winning over Latino voters, Obama still has his best shot yet at moving a bill through Congress.

But there are still plenty of things that can derail reform efforts, some possibly exacerbated by an extended debate on taxes and spending. Republican presidential candidates are threatened by an energized Latino vote, but most members of Congress are in safe districts where their biggest threat is a conservative primary challenger. The closer the 2014 election season gets, the more skittish those Members could grow about taking difficult votes even as national party builders demand swift action.

There may be some positive signs for immigration reform buried in the fiscal cliff fight as well. In order to pass the Senate’s tax bill, Speaker Boehner relied mostly on Democratic support, violating a Republican taboo against bringing items to the floor that the majority of the GOP caucus opposes. Given the very real possibility of a tea party revolt over immigration reform, he may need to do the same again to carry a comprehensive bill across the finish line.

“Our guess is a bill worth supporting — that doesn’t mean a perfect one — that could make it out of a Republican House is likely going to have a similar makeup to the fiscal cliff vote,” Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, told TPM.

But there’s no guarantee that Boehner, whose hold on his conference is at
the weakest of his tenure, will want to invite yet another GOP civil war to pass a White House priority loathed by a substantial portion of his members. If the debt ceiling talks widen the rift between him and the rank and file, immigration could become that much harder to advance. While Fitz suggested that immigration should be a much easier sell to the average Republican than violating a tax pledge, he expressed concern that moderates might lay low, leaving more restrictionist voices, like Iowa Rep. Steve King (R-IA), to rally opposition in conservative media.

“The most extreme end up becoming the face of the party on this issue, but it’s clearly not where the Republican majority’s voters are,” he said. “The majority of them are like Democrats and independents in supporting realistic reforms that enable the undocumented population to earn citizenship over time.”

One plus that reformers have going for them is that the basic components of a reform package are already well established from previous immigration debates, even if hammering out the details proves a difficult slog. In November, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus proposed a bill incorporating a path to citizenship, expanded visas for high-tech workers, a legal route to hiring migrant workers, a commitment to border security, and a crackdown on illegal hiring by employees. Each of these portions has its own interest groups gearing up to pressure Congress and it’s likely the White House’s own plan will incorporate similar planks.

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