Rubio isn't immigration reform's only potential saboteur

Before Chuck Schumer pops the champagne, he's got to deal with senator's delay tactics and a Republican House

Published April 2, 2013 11:46AM (EDT)


NBC News' "First Read" yesterday crowed about an "April's shower of activity on Capitol Hill," as Congress defied its recent history of gridlock and ... made gradual, grudging process on negotiations on various initiatives that might eventually turn into bills that might eventually pass. The brightest spot of news was on immigration reform. Over the weekend, we heard that "labor and business" (that is, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) had reached a mutually agreeable compromise on guest workers. On Sunday, "Gang of Eight" member Chuck Schumer all but promised that reform would happen, and happen soon. Then, Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of that gang, publicly announced his intention to slow everything down.

Rubio sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy in which he demanded more hearings. So, so many hearings. (Rubio's letter contained the word "hearings" six times.) And open amendments, which is basically asking permission for anti-reform senators to attempt to make a series of potentially toxic votes if they want their precious reform.

Rubio's spokesperson, Alex Conant, reiterated the hearings demand to Roll Call late yesterday.

“We want public hearings, a committee markup and an amendment process on the floor,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told CQ Roll Call on Monday. “We need to get buy-in from [everyone.] We want people to understand what’s in the bill and what’s not in the bill.”

This isn't just Rubio making a big show out of calling for everyone to take a breather. This is a real call for lengthy delay. The audience for Roll Call isn't normal humans like you and me, it's other senators and people who actually do all the work for senators. In other words, Rubio really, really wants these public hearings.

Why would that be? It's maybe because Rubio wants a bill to pass and he thinks an "open" process will help make it easier for conservatives to swallow, or it may be because he's keeping his options open in case he needs to eject from being associated with a major piece of legislation that could end up as a cornerstone of the Obama legacy.

According to Pew, while Republicans aren't any fonder of immigrants than they were before, they're willing to accept immigration reform that provides paths to legal status for undocumented workers. (The role of conservative media in selling this to the base is probably huge: News Corp. loves Latinos and Murdoch supports legalization.) The grass-roots nativist backlash that many people -- myself definitely included -- have been predicting has simply not yet materialized. Which, arguably, is the point of hearings. More open, public, televised debate could make the bill less popular -- generally the more Americans see of Congress the less they like it -- and a Republican base that currently grudgingly accepts that they need to win over more Latino voters may decide they're not worth the trouble. Rubio still intends to win some Republican primaries in 2016, remember.

It's always worth remembering that senators never miss an opportunity to turn against bills designed to achieve goals they claim to support, and individual senators are given a great deal of power to kill legislation in our bizarre system of federal government. Lindsey Graham once killed two bills he claimed to support because they were going to be debated in the wrong order. Rubio isn't in the lonely position of being the sole Republican involved in this negotiation, but he's the only one in the Gang with presidential aspirations.

As I said, though, the conservative media -- which galvanized opposition to reform a few years back, when Bush tried it -- is currently largely on board. (Rand Paul also deserves some credit for this, having used his wizard powers to convince a room full of House Tea Party mouth-breathers to support a path to citizenship shortly after his hugely popular filibuster of John Brennan.)

So if Rubio doesn't kill it, and the conservative media doesn't kill it, that leaves the House GOP. Rubio's camp claims his current maneuvering, while it looks suspiciously like backing away, is actually an attempt to win over conservatives in the House. John Boehner really, really doesn't want to pass yet another bill that most of his caucus opposes, and he also promised everyone that he wouldn't ever "negotiate" again (because negotiations take place "behind closed doors," which is where the conservative movement gets sold out 100 percent of the time). So House Republicans are just writing their own bill, essentially unconcerned with what labor and business or Senate gangs have to say.

The House approach looks like it's going to be basically much more needlessly punitive than whatever the Senate ends up with:

Under the House plan, it would take more than 10 years to get a green card, and will require paying back taxes, a hefty penalty, sources say. Undocumented immigrants would have to gain proficiency in English and make some sort of admission that the law was broken. Some negotiators have floated the idea of having an undocumented immigrant “plead guilty” to breaking immigration laws, according to sources involved. The lengthy time it would take for undocumented immigrants to get a green card and citizenship will also help lower the cost of the bill, since the Congressional Budget Office assesses budgetary impact in a 10-year period, the sources said.

The "plead guilty" part is a particularly nice touch, since it basically makes it plain how much of this is solely about punishment and not fixing any particular public policy problem.

A "reform" bill that makes it effectively financially impossible for a huge portion of current immigrants to be granted legal status, even if they're willing to spend decades jumping through administrative hoops, would seem to defeat most of the purpose of immigration reform. But even with a thousand public hearings, could anything more reasonable than this pass this House?

By Alex Pareene

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

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