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Obama Sees an Immigration Bandwagon

The complexity of writing and enacting comprehensive immigration reform at the congressional level is such that seemingly conflicting news reports of progress and setbacks can both be right. Today is no different. First, the progress: the Senate voted to send the comprehensive immigration reform bill to the floor for debate, which will likely last for the next few weeks.

Matthew Yglesias reported two weeks ago about a compromise on so-called high-skilled worker visas, or H1-B visas, that helped paved the way for the bill’s passage out of committee and gave it a shove forward. He wrote:

The basic issue is that the Gang of 8 immigration framework both expanded the H1-B skilled guest worker program and added some new hoops that companies have to jump through if they want to hire H1-B workers. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a longtime ally of the technology industry on this issue, had a couple of amendments that would basically pair those hoops back. Dick Durbin, a major ally of the union groups that don’t like H1-B but also a major ally of Latino advocacy organizations, did not like those amendments.

The result was that they basically met somewhere in the middle, with the amended version of the bill passing out of committee with 13 yes votes and 5 no votes; Hatch was a yes vote. Hatch wouldn’t promise to vote for the final bill, but his support gave the bill momentum and allowed the process to take a not-insignificant step forward. Yglesias approvingly noted that this is “how the legislative process in the United States is supposed to work,” but acknowledged that the high-skilled visa portion is far from the most controversial aspect of the bill. Nonetheless, the bill proceeded with key support from both sides.

The setback of the day comes from Evan McMorris-Santoro. President Obama has generally been less than helpful to the cause of comprehensive immigration reform, working to kill such efforts both as a senator and then as president. Obama also has a habit of calling press conferences to goad and taunt Republicans while they are engaged in the actual work of crafting bipartisan legislation–something that does not put anyone in the mood to compromise. So you would think that the one thing the president would know not to do if he finally wants immigration reform to pass would be to dive into the process in the middle of negotiations and call a press conference to slam some of the bill’s critics as people who “think that a broken system is the best America can do.” But of course that’s exactly what he did today.

Regardless of the contents of the speech, McMorris-Santoro notes the chilly reception the polarizing president is getting for even talking about the process. So why would the president jump in? McMorris-Santoro explains:

President Obama, who has been deliberately absent from the debate until now, has reemerged, hoping to cross the finish line along with the lawmakers who have championed the bill.

Yes, it’s about Obama. As always. The president has never before been truly supportive of immigration reform, always working to undermine the process when he can use its failure to demagogue Republicans to win elections. Throughout the current push for immigration reform, it has been an open question as to whether the president wants it to succeed this time or if he’d prefer to have it fail in order to fire up the Democratic base in time for the mid-term congressional elections next year.

Although the president’s decision to take counterproductive actions would seem to undercut the idea that he genuinely wants reform to pass, his speech today at least demonstrates that he thinks the legislation is likely to pass. If he thought the bill didn’t stand a chance, he wouldn’t want to tie himself too closely to a failing effort. That way, if the bill fails, he can use it as an issue in the midterms but without taking ownership in its failure.

But the president doesn’t want to pass up an opportunity to share credit for someone else’s success. It’s far too early to tell if the bill will pass in its final version, but today’s progress was enough to convince the president that it’s time to jump on the bandwagon.


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