It's hard to be optimistic about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform when you talk to House Republicans. My conversations suggest that if anything passes the House, it will most likely be small, bite-sized morsels of largely noncontroversial ideas—lowest-common-denominator items that bear little resemblance to the sweeping immigration measure that passed the Senate on June 27.
I recently asked a very smart House Republican to rate the prospects for immigration reform in the chamber on a scale of zero to 100—with zero meaning the House passes nothing in this Congress and 100 meaning it approves the Senate-passed comprehensive plan. The answer was 35. In my view, a 35 would represent something along the lines of the Dream Act, legislation that would provide legal status to those who came to the United States as undocumented children and have gone on to college or joined the military. A version of the Dream Act passed the House in 2010, when Democrats controlled the chamber, but it failed to clear the Senate. House Republicans are working on a new version of the measure, which could be more restrictive than the 2010 legislation in terms of the number of immigrants who qualify. And even a restrictive version could be too ambitious for this House.
In February, Speaker John Boehner referred to the concept of doing something for children, without addressing the specifics of the Dream Act, as "worthy of consideration." He recently said, "This is about basic fairness," and, "These children were brought here by no accord of their own, and, frankly, they're in a very difficult position. And I think many of our members believe that this issue needs to be addressed." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said, "It's an issue of decency, of compassion," and asked, "Where else would these kids go?" As reasonable and logical as Boehner and Cantor may sound on these points, even these relatively innocuous statements may be getting a little ahead of the House Republican Conference.
The listening session that Boehner recently held, giving all GOP House members a chance to speak their mind on immigration, gave some reform advocates hope that something like the Dream Act might pass. Chances are better than even, however, that Democrats would spurn such a modest proposal as an empty gesture. (Cynics would argue that some Democrats would rather have immigration reform as a campaign weapon than make modest progress on the issue.)
Another very smart and wired-in Republican, a veteran of well over three decades in Washington, pointed out to me that the Republican support in the Senate for the comprehensive measure represented a minority of the minority (14 of 46 Republicans) and that those 14 GOP senators have little in common ideologically or stylistically with House Republicans, while the Senate Republicans who opposed it—including the leadership—are more in tune with the House rank and file. This suggests that nothing close to the Senate bill will pass the House or even survive a House-Senate conference committee.
What if House Republicans approved an immigration bill that included, for example, elements of the Dream Act, along with scaled-down, less-expensive border-security spending than in the Senate bill, and visa reform for high-tech and high-education workers and certain other groups, such as specialty construction workers, who are in short supply? That would add up to about 35 on the zero-to-100 scale. Senate Republicans need something to pass, not for the midterms (they have no incumbents up for reelection who are in danger in any states where immigration is a dominant issue) but to get the issue off the table before 2016 when they have 24 Senate seats at risk, compared with the Democrats' 10. Immigration could be problematic for some potentially vulnerable GOP senators. Moreover, the Republican Party needs to deal with the issue before the presidential race heats up. This is an issue that GOP leaders need to see in their rearview mirror in 2016, rather than dealing with it as election fodder.
But all of this high-minded stuff—that Republicans need to get the immigration issue off the table if they want to win and hold a Senate majority or win the White House—matters little to many GOP House lawmakers who sit in very white, very conservative congressional districts and who have much more to fear from a conservative primary challenger than from a Democrat. Anything that even remotely smacks of "amnesty for illegal aliens" is a 30-second television ad or a 60-second radio spot that none of them want to hear in their districts. Many of these members might not actually mind if the House passes something on immigration, as long as it's done without their votes. The last edition of Profiles in Courage has already gone to press.
In the end, the critical question may be whether Democrats would go along in conference with a "Dream Lite" measure—a Republican baby step toward immigration reform, representing all that is possible in the realities of internal GOP politics today—or whether they would prefer to use immigration and, specifically, failure to pass a comprehensive reform law as a club to beat Republicans in 2014 and 2016. My bet is, Democrats will demand far more than House Republicans can possibly deliver.
This article appears in the July 27, 2013, edition of National Journal as A Bridge Too Far.