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Schumer Outsmarts the GOP Again

Chuck Schumer is at it again. The wily New York Democrat put together an impressive bipartisan coalition last year to push an immigration reform bill through the Senate. Schumer succeeded because he not only enlisted Republicans who agreed that fixing the broken system was long overdue but because he listened to their concerns and designed legislation that made border security a priority alongside concerns Democrats cared about, such as providing a path to legalization and citizenship for the 11 million illegal aliens currently in the country. However, the Senate bill has stalled in the House and last week House Speaker John Boehner said even the approach to immigration favored by some Republicans in which the border security measures would be passed separately was also not viable. But Schumer isn’t giving up. And in a last, probably vain effort to save immigration reform in this Congress, he is again listening to what Republicans are saying.

When Boehner dismissed the possibility of passing an immigration bill of any kind last week, he explained that Republicans simply do not trust President Obama to enforce the laws of the land with regard to border security. After Obama announced in his State of the Union that he would attempt, wherever possible, to govern without the consent of Congress via executive orders, conservatives who were never very enthusiastic about dealing with immigration in the first place saw an excuse to oppose any effort, even one favored by Boehner and most of the GOP leadership. Worried that rebellious Tea Partiers might threaten his speakership as well as by the possibility that the issue would divert Republicans and the voters from the Democrats’ ObamaCare woes, Boehner waved the white flag on immigration reform.

In response to this, Schumer said yesterday that he would agree to an immigration bill that wouldn’t go into effect until 2017. In doing so, he’s calling the Republicans’ bluff. Since President Obama would not have the opportunity to gum up the works on border security after he left office, Schumer has answered what we were told was the chief Republican concern about addressing immigration this year.

Will it succeed? Of course not! Obama’s lawless approach to governance is a legitimate issue. But by giving in to Republicans on this point and putting off implementation of the law until after Obama leaves the White House, all Schumer has done is to expose something that was already obvious: Republicans won’t vote for an immigration reform bill under virtually any circumstances.

Many on the right think what happened in the Senate on immigration last year that the clever Schumer hoodwinked Senate Republicans like Marco Rubio. The conservative distrust of Schumer is so intense that they think any accommodation on his part is all part of a dastardly scheme concocted to embarrass the GOP and/or to further the liberal agenda. But the history of this legislation proves that Schumer’s genius is not so much a matter of his outfoxing the Republicans as it is a matter of his concessions successfully illustrating the intransigence of some conservatives on this issue.

What Schumer has done on immigration is to transform the liberal position from one in which Democrats demanded a bill that was solely focused on easing entry in the country and a path to citizenship for illegals into one that poured massive resources into border security and charted a path to legalization for scofflaws that was both lengthy and draconian. In the last month as House Republicans began talking about a package that would separate the these two elements, Schumer and the White House backed down on the citizenship track and indicated they would settle for legalization. Now he has further sweetened the pot for Republicans by removing Obama and his cherry-picking approach to law enforcement out of the question entirely.

But House Republicans are running away from Schumer’s suggestion as fast as they are from the bipartisan Senate bill he sent them. Though what he has done used to be considered normative behavior in a previous era when it was accepted that compromise was necessary to pass a bill, many in the GOP view his concessions as a plot. Speaker Boehner’s office dismissed the idea as “impractical,” saying the delay would give the president no incentive to enforce the laws in his last three years in office. Though some Republicans are open to the proposal, it’s more than obvious that the GOP would rather have its talking point about Obama’s lawlessness exposed as a mere excuse rather than budge on its refusal to address the issue this year.

This is, as I wrote last week, a mistake. Republicans who think they can continue to further alienate Hispanic voters while also convincing many non-Hispanics that they are succumbing to prejudice without long-term damage to their electoral prospects are engaging in self-deception. While allowing a House debate and a vote would give greater prominence to the “worst and most irresponsible voices on immigration” that Pete Wehner mentioned in his piece on the issue, what Boehner has done is to give those very same people an effective veto on the legislation. Having given those who are mesmerized by the word “amnesty” the whip hand over the GOP in 2014, does anyone really think it will be easier to enact any kind of fix to a broken immigration system in 2014 even if Republicans win control of both the House and the Senate in November? While liberal Hispanics can’t be converted to the GOP by only one bill, the Republican failure to address reform cannot but result in anything but their writing off an increasingly important segment of the electorate for the foreseeable future.

Schumer may be a clever politician, but if he succeeds in embarrassing the GOP, it is those conservatives who are thwarting immigration reform who deserve the credit. Schumer’s latest compromise has resulted in yet another unforced error on the part of the Republican leadership. Immigration reform remains good public policy as well as good politics for the GOP. If it loses another presidential election by ignoring or insulting Hispanics the way it did in 2012, those who are applauding or condoning Boehner’s decision will have cause to look back on this episode with regret. 


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