By Carrie Budoff Brown and Jake Sherman
April 8, 2013
Right now, immigration reform seems like President Barack Obama’s best chance at a legacy achievement in 2013.
Bipartisan groups in the House and Senate are closing in on a deal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, and leaders in both parties want it to happen.
As Congress comes back into session, lawmakers will be ironing out lingering details — but that’s not all that could happen to complicate the process in the week ahead.
Conservatives could bolt. The already tenuous relationship between the business and labor communities could fray. Key Republican proponents, like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, will face pressure from the right flank. And when a bill finally makes it out of the backroom, disagreement about how it will snake through the legislative process could upend the whole effort.
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Here are five things to watch as Congress enters a crucial stretch in the immigration debate:
1. Revolt from the right
Conservatives looking to trip up a deal will have a lot to work with.
Start with the secretive nature of the talks. Both the House and the Senate return from recess as bipartisan negotiating groups in both chambers attempt to wrap up a bill after months of hush-hush talks. They were so secretive that House members even refused at one point to acknowledge that their group existed.
Then there is the substance of the bill. It’s going to take a lot of convincing for many Republicans that the pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants isn’t actually an amnesty program.
Perhaps most problematic is the cost. Although lawmakers in the Senate are aiming to make it budget-neutral, the legislation is expected to carry an overall price tag of at least tens of billions of dollars, fueling criticism about the burden it would place on the government in the near term and entitlement programs in the coming decades as immigrants access Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
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House leaders recognize the danger from the right and have slowly urged that the House negotiators slow down its progress. The group was slated to unveil a bill this week, but aides involved in the negotiations say nothing is even on the horizon.
“Our concern is to get it done well not quickly,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said on CNN on Sunday.
The immigration reform effort has benefited from a neutral, if not supportive, reaction from the country’s loudest conservative critics — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Rubio, a member of the Senate’s Gang of Eight and a tea party darling, can take credit for some of it by initiating an effective charm offensive.
But when the details come out, all bets are off.
“There will be a great deal of unhappiness about this proposal because everybody didn’t get what they wanted,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
2. The pathway — through Congress
As tough as the private Senate and House talks have been, pushing those agreements through each chamber will be infinitely harder.
In the House, there’s already talk of bypassing the committees and instead having a closed Republican meeting to hash out the details. Labrador and Diaz-Balart would be tasked with prodding Republicans to vote for the plan and making modest changes if they disagree.
That’s because in the House, it would be nearly impossible to put an immigration compromise through the three committees that have jurisdiction — Judiciary, Homeland Security and Education and the Workforce. The bill would get nicked up and changed beyond recognition. Conservative firebrands would attempt to amend the legislation, and moderate Republicans would be hard-pressed to stand in their way.
Another option is moving it through one committee: Judiciary.
But that could be perilous for Republicans too.
Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) would have to oversee a mark up that either infuriates conservatives by restricting amendments or alienates the business community by drifting to the right.
Senate leaders have already decided that the Gang of Eight’s product will undergo a full markup in the Judiciary Committee. The pledge to put the bill through regular order is a lesson from the 2007 reform effort, when a small negotiating group reached an agreement and immediately put it on the Senate floor.
But Rubio has insisted that the committee also hold hearings ahead of the markup, setting back the legislative timetable by at least a few weeks. It’s unclear how many hearings are enough for Rubio, who is speaking for many Republicans when he says the bill needs a full public airing.
McCain attempted to head off the criticism Sunday from his own party, although he didn’t explicitly endorse the call for hearings.
“There will be plenty of time for discussion and debate,” he said. “I reject the notion that this is something being railroaded through. This is the beginning of the process not the end of it.”
3. Gang solidarity
Right now, the House and Senate negotiating groups look chummy.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leader of the Gang of Eight, appeared with McCain on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” exchanging another round of compliments about how well they have clicked.
McCain called Schumer a “man of his word,” adding, “that’s why I think we’ve been able, the eight of us, to work together.” Schumer went out of his way to say McCain is a ”great leader.”
But that glue could easily come undone in coming days as Schumer pushes for a final deal by the end of the week and a full floor debate by May.
Even if all members of the Gang of Eight sign on to a bill, they will need to decide whether to hold together and work to defeat amendments that threaten the heart of their deal as it moves through committee and the floor.
Such an agreement would put Rubio at odds with his right flank and test his alliance with the Gang of Eight.
Already, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wants to toughen the bill, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants to increase oversight. Not to mention, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is up for reelection in two years and is sure to push for the toughest path to ameliorate concerns on the right.
And some Democratic senators are likely to pursue amendments that scale back the visa program for low-skilled foreign workers or liberalize the pathway to citizenship. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a gang member whom the Hispanic community is expecting to protect its interests, will face similar pressures as Rubio but from the left.
If the Gang of Eight hopes to get broad bipartisan support — Schumer said Sunday that he wants “a good vote on both sides” — the extent to which the members protect their deal will be key.
“There are always disagreements,” Schumer said. “But the desire of all eight to meet in the middle and come to an agreement, which is so much more important than each little thing that we might prefer one way or the other, has carried us through this far and I’m very hopeful and optimistic will carry us through the whole way.”
4. The Rubio-Labrador stamp of approval
The fate of immigration reform hinges, in no small way, on the two conservative Washington neophytes.
A big reason Republicans have grown comfortable with immigration reform is because the pair — both Hispanic — have given the process their blessing.
But they’re both facing pressures.
Top GOP aides say it’s tough to read Labrador. And it’s become accepted wisdom that if Rubio doesn’t sign on in the Senate, the chances of passing a bill could evaporate. He’s attempted to keep some public distance from the Gang of Eight, suggesting his approval of a final deal won’t come easily.
“Marco has been very important,” McCain said.
5. The labor-business bond
A deal between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on visas for low-skilled workers was supposed to finally bring fierce rivals into alignment.
But that might have been wishful thinking.
In the week after the Chamber and the AFL-CIO announced the agreement, business groups indicated that they oppose the framework for a temporary worker program, signaling that this issue, which doomed immigration reform in the past, might still be a major headache for the bill’s proponents.
The construction industry was the first to go public, saying they are “deeply concerned” about the temporary worker program and that the cap on construction visas is “simply unrealistic and destined to fail.”
Other industries are expected to step forward, as well, although several business lobbyists told POLITICO that many industries are hesitant to put out statements before seeing legislative language.
The extent to which labor and business support the bill matters — and not only because they can throw their organizing power behind it.
The proponents of the bill will have a hard enough time herding lawmakers without worrying about a feud between two of Washington’s most powerful interests.
Anna Palmer contributed to this report.