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Immigration Reform’s Death Certificate

Chalk up one more casualty of the government shutdown. If there were any doubts that there was virtually no chance that the bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate is dead on arrival in the House, it came in the form of comments from Senator Marco Rubio yesterday on Fox News Sunday. Rubio, the key conservative member of the gang of eight that crafted the reform bill that was, after a long fight, adopted by the Senate, said he endorsed a decision by the House Republican leadership to approach the issue by separate bills rather than the omnibus legislation that he had worked so hard to pass. Throughout the Senate fight, Rubio had defended the idea that creating a pathway to citizenship for the millions already here illegally should go forward simultaneously with efforts to strengthen border security. But, after the bitterness of the past month during which President Obama had refused to negotiate with Republicans, such an approach was now impossible:

What Congressman Labrador is addressing is something that I hear from opponents of our efforts all the time, and I think that’s a valid point, and that is this: you have a government and a White House that has consistently decided to ignore the law and how to apply it. Look at the health care law. The law is on the books, they decide which parts of it to apply and which parts not to apply. They issue their own waivers without any congressional oversight. And what they say is, you’re going to pass an immigration law that has both some legalization aspects and some enforcement. What’s not to say that this White House won’t come back and cancel the enforcement aspects of it? …

Now, this notion that they’re going to get in a room and negotiate a deal with the president on immigration is much more difficult to do for two reasons. Number one, because of the way that president has behaved towards his opponents over the last three weeks, as well as the White House and the things that they’ve said and done. And number two, because of what I outlined to you. So, I certainly think that immigration reform is a lot harder to achieve today than it was just three weeks ago because of what’s happened here. Again, I think the House deserved the time and space to have their own ideas about how they want to move forward on this. Let’s see what they can come up with. It could very well be much better than what the Senate has done so far.

It can be argued that the gang of eight’s bill was doomed in the House long before the Senate passed it and Rubio’s relative silence on the issue in recent months made it clear that he had already jumped ship on it. But his statement is the official death certificate. Though President Obama said last week that immigration is a top priority for him in the coming months, the leftover nastiness from the shutdown and debt ceiling battles means he might as well forget it.

Even as he disavowed any interest in persuading House Republicans to adopt his bill or to trust the administration to implement it or any other measure, Rubio still defended his decision to take part in the gang of eight. He rightly noted once again that the “amnesty” for illegals that conservative critics of reform decry better describes the status quo than a future in which they would be brought in from the shadows after paying fines and placed at the back of the line. He’s also right that the country desperately needs reform of a broken system and that those who favor stricter enforcement should applaud the Senate bill’s emphasis on the subject, which some have even dubbed overkill.

But even though he’s sticking to his guns as to why the bill was right on policy, Rubio is finally conceding that it is politically impossible.

Earlier in the year, many conservatives, including those who support immigration reform, thought President Obama wanted the bipartisan bill to fail so he could cynically continue to use the issue to hammer Republicans in the next election cycle. But the president wisely kept silent through much of the spring and stayed out of the Senate fight, enabling the bill’s passage. By claiming that the president has undermined bipartisanship even on this topic, Rubio is declaring that bipartisanship on any issue has become impossible in the current political environment.

There will be those who will blame this on the GOP architects of the shutdown strategy and there will be some truth to that assertion. But partisan gutter fighting is a two-way street. By ruthlessly choosing to exploit his advantage and not negotiate with Republicans over the shutdown and the debt ceiling, the president has made trust across the political aisle a thing of the past.

While there may be months of bitter wrangling over immigration ahead of us, Rubio’s statement makes it clear that Congress is no more capable of crafting a compromise on this issue than they were on other topics. That’s bad for those who care about this issue and bad for those Republicans who, like Rubio, knew this was an opportunity for their party to jettison the anti-immigrant sentiments that are undermining its future.