How Immigration Reform Can Still Pass Congress

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). AP Photo.
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Despite the long odds, Democrats see a narrow road through which comprehensive immigration reform could still pass both houses of Congress and become law.

The road is murky and full of landmines. But here’s how it would go.

Democrats’ prime directive is to get to a House-Senate conference committee, which requires the House Republican majority to bring up and pass core components of reform, including bills to beef up border security, overhaul the guest worker program and — here’s where it gets very difficult — some sort of path to eventual citizenship for people living in the country illegally.

“We would prefer a big comprehensive bill but any way the House can get there is okay by us,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Wednesday on CNN. “If they pass individual, smaller bills they will get agglomerated.”

House GOP leaders have rejected a comprehensive overhaul like the one passed on a bipartisan basis by the Senate, but they’re open to a piecemeal approach. Democrats are fine with that, as long as it includes a citizenship component for those in the country illegally. (The other provisions are less contentious.) Without that, immigration reform is dead. The trouble there is citizenship is highly unlikely to be supported by a majority of the Republican conference, without which Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has repeatedly promised not to bring up a bill.

Conservative advocates have mobilized in full force against a path to legalization, painting it as amnesty for law breakers and threatening to oust Republicans who vote for it. And the demographics in the House are brutal: The vast majority of GOP lawmakers represent overwhelmingly white, conservative districts with strong opposition to a legalization program.

There may be a way around that obstacle, although it’s tricky.

A version of the DREAM Act is — tentatively called the Kids Act — being drafted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-TX). If that passes, Democrats may be willing to go to conference and expand the pathway there.

The Kids Act, which hasn’t been written yet, has appeal to Republicans because it’s modeled on the highly popular idea that those brought to the U.S. illegally as children deserve a chance at citizenship. Although many conservatives oppose any such program, Republicans as a party are facing enormous pressure from the fast-growing Hispanic community to support some kind of policy to help people living in the country illegally.

The problem is it’s unlikely Republicans can pass even that by themselves, while means they’ll have to make it amenable to enough Democrats and a majority of their members. No easy task.

“First of all, right now it’s not a bill, it’s a talking point,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). He said the more watered down the eventual Kids bill is, the less likely any Democrats are to support it. He added that he’s unaware of any outreach by Cantor or Goodlatte to Democrats in the drafting of the bill.

But if such a bill passes, it could be used as a vehicle to get to conference committee.

And there House Republicans would be marginalized. A final product would simply need the support of a majority of conferees from each chamber in order to get floor votes in the House and Senate. All Democrats would stand firm for a broader citizenship component for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, and enough Republicans, particularly in the Senate where 14 of them voted for the policy, would probably go along with them. A bill similar to the Senate version would easily pass the House with mostly Democratic votes.

There are several landmines on this road that could blow up the effort.

First, House Republicans might see the piecemeal bills as attempts to get to conference, where they’ll be steamrolled, and thus scuttle them despite support for the policies. Second, Boehner has promised not to permit a House vote on legislation that lacks the support of a majority of his GOP members, and he’ll face pressure to avoid initiating a conference committee that could lead to a final product that most of them oppose. Making matters worse, he’ll face huge challenges getting his members in line to continue funding the government and raise the debt ceiling this fall, giving him little room to push them further.

Third, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is up for re-election next year, which means that despite significant Senate GOP support for a citizenship provision, he could face blowback if he appoints conferees that allow such a bill to come to the floor and pass.

Where supporters of reform see optimism is the fact that unlike the previous effort which collapsed in 2007, stakeholders are overwhelmingly supportive of reform — including labor, business, Hispanics, evangelicals, Democrats and even the GOP establishment, which is eager to take the issue off the table. They’re mounting a push for reform during the August recess.

But it remains to be seen whether all of those stakeholders put together can overcome the single most powerful force in the House: The conservative base.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Republican senators who voted for immigration reform. It has been updated.

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