How does immigration reform pass after a bloody fight over a government shutdown? The White House strategy for the fall relies on back-to-back capitulations from conservative Republicans on the core issues of taxes and spending and immigration. That's bad news for supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. Their issue is going to come up after a deal is reached on the budget, which means passage of comprehensive reform would require the second huge cave by Republican leaders. That’s more spelunking than the system can tolerate.
Last week President Obama started framing the fall's budget fights. The first battle will be over the continued funding of the government after money runs out Sept. 30. Then there will be a squabble over raising the debt limit. In the first fight, Democrats and the president want to avoid the next round of sequestration cuts and repair the damage done by the ones that have already taken place. On the other side stand House Republicans and some newer Republican arrivals in the Senate who oppose this effort and have even more ambitious fiscal goals. They want to reduce government spending by far more than the White House and Senate Democrats want, and they want to use these crisis moments as leverage to defund the president’s health care plan.
The president has some leverage in the budget argument. Republican leaders don’t want to look like they are being reckless with the credit of the United States. That’s why they backed off a debt limit fight earlier in the year. Several Republicans, including conservatives like Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Tom Cole, have already spoken out against the Obamacare defunding gambit. The president also has Republican allies who are trying to rescue defense cuts from the dumb across-the-board nature of the sequestration. And he knows that the business interests backing the GOP—and wealthy patrons writing checks for their fall campaigns—do not want to rattle the markets with more talk of a government shutdown or default on the full faith and credit of the United States.
You could see the president pressing this advantage in his speech last week. Though he said he was willing to work with Republicans on solving the budget impasse, it was an even more meaningless overture than usual because in the very next sentence this is how he characterized Republicans: "There are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on a lot of the ideas I'll be proposing. I know because they've said so. But they worry they'll face swift political retaliation for cooperating with me. Now, there are others who will dismiss every idea I put forward either because they're playing to their most strident supporters or, in some cases, because sincerely they have a fundamentally different vision for America—one that says inequality is both inevitable and just; one that says an unfettered free market without any restraints inevitably produces the best outcomes, regardless of the pain and uncertainty imposed on ordinary families.”
When you're characterizing the people most likely to work with you as moral cowards, you're not starting negotiations in a happy place. Better, I suppose, than the other two categories of Republican the president outlined: political hacks and the heartless who enjoy inequality, pain, and uncertainty. The president was a little more generous about the “thoughtful and sensible” Republicans in the Senate in his recent New York Times interview, but for now, despite regular meetings, the president and Senate Republicans remain far apart.
These are going to be ugly fights. Senate Democrats are calling for $91 billion more in spending for next year than the House Republican majority is planning to spend. The president is saying he’s not going to negotiate on raising the debt limit, but Speaker John Boehner says that every dollar the debt limit increases must be matched with a dollar in spending cuts. These impasses will have to get resolved, and when they are, a sizable group of conservative Republicans will be very angry about the outcome. They’ll be angry because the federal government will not have shrunk as much as they’d like and because they will have lost a high-profile fight to a president who characterized them as unprincipled hacks backed by constituents too dumb to understand the genius of his policies.
It’s in this dismal atmosphere that the House will turn to immigration reform. John Boehner has been adamant that he won't bring immigration reform for a vote in the House without the support of a majority of Republicans. The problem is that the 2012 election didn't put pressure on enough Republicans to move an immigration bill. Passage of a comprehensive plan in the Senate didn't do that either. So for the last few weeks comprehensive immigration reform supporters have been promoting a theory about how reform passes the House with a wink and a nod between John Boehner and a bloc of conservatives. The theory about how he picks his own lock goes something like this: These conservatives get so much pressure from pro-comprehensive reform forces like evangelical leaders, farmers, and the Chamber of Commerce that they realize that a comprehensive bill must pass. They go to Speaker Boehner and say that they won't support such a bill but they also won't raise total hell about it if one passes. They won’t challenge his speakership and they won’t make future legislation impossible. Essentially, they give him permission to go back on his word and allow a vote without a majority of the majority.
This scenario has always seemed like a fantasy. It's logistically complex, requiring a lot of agreements and relying on secrecy and trust of a kind that is uncharacteristic of the 113th Congress. And it needs time. Conservative opponents of reform need to feel like they are being heard, their concerns are being met at some level, and they need an opportunity for their constituents to get to yes too. That time for consideration is going to be shredded by the budget fight. Rushed deals, like the last-minute attempt in the Senate to buy support with a host of new spending on border agents and fencing, didn't work. If this immigration Plan C is going to work, it also means the president keeping his distance from the process so that no one would get hung up on the idea that they were giving him something he wanted.
It’s a fantasy, but senators in the Gang of Eight and members of the White House staff have been promoting it enough that you have to at least think through the plausibility. But when you do engage in this mental experiment, it’s hard to keep out the smell of acrid smoke and big piles of rubble that will be the result of the budget wars. The budget fights will not just further spoil relations between the left and right, but they will also poke at the lack of trust between grassroots conservatives and Washington politicians. John Boehner and his team are going to have a hell of a time asking a member to take a second set of tough votes their constituents won’t like. The rank-and-file opposition to immigration reform may be overstated, but what comprehensive immigration proponents will face in the fall is not just opposition to the immigration reform itself, but opposition to the entire Washington process. In the wake of the budget fights, that process will have just offended them afresh.