3 reasons to be skeptical that immigration reform will pass

Senate leaders are optimistic, but here's why you shouldn't expect anything to happen

By Alex Pareene

Published January 28, 2013 8:35PM (EST)

                              (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)
(AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

The big story out of Washington today is that a bipartisan "gang" of senators tentatively agree on a "framework" for comprehensive immigration reform. And it's not just another variation on the increasingly limited Dream Act: It's got a real path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Harry Reid is going to make it a top priority. Longtime immigration reform supporter John McCain, who opportunistically turned against reform a few years ago, is back on board. Conservative golden boy Marco Rubio is pushing Republicans to accept it. The bill could be on the president's desk by spring.

Except it's all going to blow up. For three simple reasons:

Lindsey Graham

One member of the "gang of eight" is, naturally, Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is always joining gangs with his best friend John McCain. That's a bad sign. Because Lindsey Graham is a pathological deal-killer. He lives to bargain endlessly and then pull out at the last minute. Lindsey Graham is the master of refusing to support things he actually supports because a Democrat hurt his feelings. He withdrew his support for immigration reform in 2010 because the Senate planned to also consider climate legislation, another policy he claimed to support. He reneged on the Dream Act. He promised that he was working on immigration reform with Chuck Schumer two years ago and nothing happened.

The problem is, Graham is actually necessary for the bill to pass the Senate, and whenever his vote is crucial, he responds by withholding it. Here's the National Journal's Fawn Johnson explaining the Senate situation:

Advocates expect to lose at least five Democrats in the Senate, which means they will need upwards of a dozen Republicans to vote for the legislation. That's where Rubio and other Tea Party favorites like Senator Mike Lee of Utah will come into play. Rubio and Lee are newcomers to an old discussion among Republican veterans like McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Newly elected Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona will be a key Republican player as well.

If history is any guide, Graham will continue carefully negotiating and signaling his support for the proposal until he is forced to withdraw his support at the last minute because of some entirely unrelated bit of Senate business.

(Rubio could also end up killing this thing by requiring that nativist Southwestern Republican politicians get veto power over the citizenship provisions. It'd suit his purposes just fine to be seen as a guy who tried to get an immigration deal done but was stymied when Democrats asked too much of him.)

House Republicans

The problem comprehensive immigration reform ran into last time is that Republicans don't want it. The business community wants it, obviously, but Republicans forced to choose between donors and their right-wing white constituents are generally more terrified of pissing off their constituents. Right-wing nativism has declined a bit since its recent height in 2010, but it's still arguably worse than it was in 2006, when mass conservative revolt killed the last deal.

As all of America's recent legislative fights have shown, House Republicans are protected from national anti-conservative trends by very safe and conservative districts. They are more vulnerable to getting primaried than they are to losing to moderates or Democrats in a general election. A majority of Americans may now support a path to citizenship, but a majority of Americans also support hiking taxes on the rich, and the GOP nearly shut down the government rather than agree to that.

And Johnson basically acknowledges that ... no suitable deal can pass the House:

Next comes the House, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., is in no hurry to rush any broad legislation. Goodlatte's main objective is much more modest -- to familiarize his committee members with immigration policy such that they understand the difference between a work visa and a green card. There are not enough Republican votes in the House to pass anything that would earn Obama's signature or the nod from Senate Democrats.

Which means that the entire deal rests on Speaker John Boehner again bringing a major, controversial bill to the floor without a majority of Republican support, and relying on Democratic votes for its passage. I'm not sure he can do that again without ending his career. I imagine he'd be perfectly fine with killing whatever the Senate passes and allowing his caucus to pass some sort of "flying border drones and giant fences only" version of "immigration reform" instead.

The Right-wing Press

While some elite-backed elements of the right-wing press will fall in line -- Murdoch will keep his media organs on his side of the immigration debate -- the "grass-roots"conservative press is going to react the same way it did in 2006, when they helped kill their own president's immigration reform plan. National Review's The Corner is currently like 75 percent hysterical accusations of betrayal from anti-immigration zealots like Mark Krikorian, who has written four separate lengthy posts decrying "amnesty" today alone. Michelle Malkin's headline is "Suicidal GOP senators join open-borders Dems for Shamnesty Redux."

The conservative media is the primary source of opinions and information not just for crazy comment section trolls, but for a terrifying number of actual Republican legislators. If they raise enough of a fuss, and they are already fussing quite a bit, signing on to "SHAMNESTY 2.0" will become too toxic for all but a few Republicans.

I'd be thrilled to be wrong about any or all of this, but all of this sudden optimism around reform seems to ignore the last four years of American politics.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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