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Democrats Take More Assertive Role in Immigration Reform

The coverage of the effort to reform the country’s massively inefficient and outdated immigration system has usually focused on where the controversy has been thus far: Republican supporters of comprehensive immigration reform vs. the Republicans in opposition to this particular legislative effort. But the coverage in recent days has shifted, reminding us that Democrats are part of the process too, and not simply along for the ride.

It’s easy to forget that, because the general assumption has been that since Democrats support immigration reform they’ll sign on to virtually any bill crafted by a bipartisan working group, confident that at least their most pressing concerns and priorities are addressed. It isn’t unlike the ease with which Democrats can usually get Republicans to support a robust projection of American power when there are national security threats to be addressed. But two stories from the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker and one from Politico illustrate the challenge of massive reform bills crafted by two ideologically distinct parties.

The issues concern a House immigration compromise being written in parallel to the Senate version. The Politico article contained two relevant pieces of information, the first of which was that Republicans want the bill to explicitly outlaw publicly funded medical care being available to illegal immigrants who would be granted a path to citizenship but haven’t yet completed that path:

House Democratic leaders are uneasy with the idea of blocking undocumented immigrants from accessing publicly-subsidized care – such as health coverage if they have to be treated in an emergency room. That could have the effect of deporting the immigrants if they can’t afford those expenses, Democrats worry.

Republicans, however, are insisting that no public dollars – from federal to the local level – will fund the tab for health coverage for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Negotiators are looking at an end-of-the-week deadline to smooth out the differences on health care between the two sides.

Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded today that current law is sufficient, especially with regard to ObamaCare–which is where the GOP is worried most about the cost to taxpayers. (Politico quotes GOP Representative Raul Labrador saying that “What might be the story at the end of this year, at the end of this session, is that Obamacare killed immigration reform.”) It would be yet another unintended consequence of that terrible bill if it derailed immigration reform as well. The other nugget from Politico is a seemingly irreconcilable difference over guest worker visas.

And what is that guest-worker impasse? Drucker explains:

The White House, meanwhile, has been quietly pushing back against Republican attempts to increase the number of visas granted to low-skilled guest workers, who would be allowed into the U.S. under the immigration overhaul. Republican sources charge that the White House is acting on behalf of organized labor.

Republicans want more immigration, in other words, but–as Politico also pointed out–the unions don’t, and therefore neither does President Obama. This will sound familiar to those who have followed the immigration reform process for the better part of the last decade, during which Obama derailed immigration reform twice, once as a senator and once again during his first term as president. Although Obama says this time he really does want immigration reform, skeptics have history on their side and have been waiting for Obama to find and exploit the weak points of the bipartisan bill.

This morning, Drucker reported that the two sides are looking at abandoning the bipartisan House talks after tomorrow if no deal is reached, and speculated as to what the reform process would be left with if that happens:

Labrador also said that Democrats are “sadly mistaken” if they assume that killing a bipartisan House bill would force the chamber to take up the Senate version, which many House Republicans believe is flawed. Actually, the Idahoan said, sinking the House bipartisan effort would ensure that the House moves forward on legislation that is influenced primarily by conservatives and even tougher than what the chamber’s working group has developed thus far.

If that’s how both sides are actually approaching this, then the Democrats are being more realistic than Labrador is. Between the White House’s newly expressed skittishness and the conservative distaste for pushing any bureaucracy-expanding, comprehensive reform legislation, there is simply no way Democrats would sign on to a deal far to the right of where Labrador is now.

The Senate bill is likely to be somewhere in between where House Democrats are and where House Republicans are. As such, it’s a more logical compromise to fall back on. If Labrador pushes a bill radically different from the current compromise it won’t matter if it can pass the House, because it can’t pass the Senate. The virtue of the Senate bill is that it has been crafted with the need to pass the House in mind. That doesn’t automatically make it great legislation, but it will make it thus far the only piece of legislation to emerge with a fighting chance of becoming law.

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