Commentary Magazine


Selling Immigration Reform

The president’s push for a gun control bill in the Senate had many weaknesses–which is why it ultimately failed–but one of those weaknesses surely was the fact that the bill would never become law anyway. Gun control was doomed in the House, even if it passed the Senate. The same cannot be said, however, for comprehensive immigration reform. And while the “gang of eight” immigration proposal is far from a sure thing in either house of Congress, the stakes are so high precisely because it may succeed.

And that also helps explain the sense of urgency displayed by the Republican half of the gang of eight. Those four Republicans include two veterans of the pro-immigration reform wing of the GOP, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as McCain’s Arizona colleague Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio. Politico reports on the efforts of the GOP gang members, especially Graham and Rubio, to get out in front by working to define the bill first and by making the rounds on conservative talk radio shows. Those programs were credited with galvanizing conservative grassroots opposition to the last major immigration reform push in 2007. According to Politico:

The push is part of a broader strategy to smooth passage for the complex legislation in the Senate, where the idea is to lure more than just a handful of Republican senators. If a broadly backed bill passed the Senate, House Republicans would be hard pressed to reject it, proponents believe.

The talk-radio outreach is essential to the strategy because Rubio and McCain have plenty of sway in the Senate, where they will be able to lobby their colleagues face to face and develop a process for enabling amendments to the bill that could strengthen its appeal among conservatives without representing “poison pills” that would sink it instead. (The poison pill amendment threat is, if anything, underappreciated; it’s exactly how then-Senator Obama killed the 2007 immigration bill.)

The amendment process is crucial. Rand Paul, for example, is readying his own amendments to the bill. If Paul is able to get his amendments into the bill, it will help Rubio attract more conservative support and divide the skeptics. It’s more important to placate conservative skeptics than liberal skeptics because it’s unlikely liberal complaints about the bill would bring it down–ObamaCare, which was subject to comically empty threats from the left for not including a public option, is a good indication of the concerns to which legislation sponsors do and do not have to cater.

But even if the bill comes together and passes the Senate, Rubio and the others will have far less influence on what happens to it in the GOP-controlled House. And that is why Rubio is working so hard to dull conservative commentators’ unease with anything that resembles “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. Rubio is scheduled to appear on Rush Limbaugh’s show today, and it will be Rubio’s second interview with Limbaugh since the push for immigration reform picked up steam after the November election.

You can already see the rift forming by comparing the early reactions of conservative senators with those of their House counterparts:

“Is that enough for me? I don’t want to say yet. But it was a lot better than I thought it was,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, about the border security measures….

“I’m very open-minded,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “People want to do what’s right here, but there are lot of concerns on what is the best way to handle this problem and not create more.”

“Better than I thought” and “I’m very open-minded” may not be ringing endorsements of the bill, but they are leaps and bounds more optimistic than the grumbling that has already begun in the House:

“It’s worse than we thought,” said [Representative Lamar] Smith, who formerly chaired the Judiciary Committee. He added: “It’s amnesty on a massive scale, greater than we anticipated,” Smith said. “And we took their word that the border was going to be secured before the other reforms were implemented and that’s not the case.”…

The complaints aren’t limited to the substance of the bill, either. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the comprehensive approach that the Senate took won’t fly in the House.

“We need to do this incrementally,” Chaffetz said in an interview. “If it’s a big bill, it’ll die under its own weight because there will be something for everybody to hate. All or nothing is a losing strategy.”

Complicating matters even further is the response from Jim DeMint, who left the Senate this year (where he was an early Rubio supporter) to take over the Heritage Foundation. DeMint has a very critical op-ed in USA Today on the bill, raising the once-surprising possibility that the Heritage Foundation–long a pro-business stalwart–will oppose and actively work to undermine legislation likely to be supported by the Chamber of Commerce. DeMint, a Tea Party favorite, even slams the “big business” participants in crafting the bill “behind closed doors.”

The media, the left, and supporters of immigration liberalization have often decried the influence of conservative talk radio on the political process. But conservative media is also a pipeline to the base, and Rubio’s decision to engage with such media may prove to be a turning point in favor of reform this time around.

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