Democrats’ deal-making fetish will backfire

Chuck Schumer really wants the Senate immigration bill to be bipartisan -- which will ensure that the bill is awful

Published June 3, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.          (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

While the right flank of the Republican base was distracted by the so-called scandals engulfing the Obama administration last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an immigration reform bill with serious GOP support. At one time, that might have seemed miraculous, but the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” behind the bill worked hard to make it happen. Of course, they needed to throw aside the rights of LGBT people to get it done, rejecting Sen. Patrick Leahy’s amendments that would have extended the bill’s protections to same-sex couples, because Republicans would have then torpedoed the bill.

“If you redefine marriage for immigration purposes [by the Leahy amendment], the bill would fall apart because the coalition would fall apart,” Sen. Lindsey Graham declared. “It would be a bridge too far.” That led Democrats to withdraw their support for Leahy’s proposal. “I think this sounds like the fairest approach,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said of Leahy’s amendments, “but here’s the problem … we know this is going to blow the agreement apart. I don’t want to blow this bill apart.” Let’s recall Feinstein is from San Francisco; if Leahy couldn’t win her over, his crusade clearly was doomed.

We may watch that same dynamic play out again – and again – as the bill’s supporters gear up for a vote by the full Senate. Gang of Eight leader Chuck Schumer told Politico, “Our goal is to get 70 votes. It is going to take a lot of work.” His GOP partner John McCain agrees. Supposedly 70 votes is the magic number that will shame enough members of the crackpot House GOP majority into supporting it when it gets to their chamber. But how bad will the bill have to get to reach that goal? (Also remember that the artificial 60-vote super-majority requirement is already a GOP-imposed barrier to progressive reform.)

Liberal immigration reform supporters are sounding the alarm over Schumer and McCain’s super-duper-majority plan. “Some members of the Gang of 8 seem willing to trade a bit too much in order to ratchet up a high vote count,” America’s Voice executive director Frank Sharry wrote in a statement. “We would remind them that it’s far better to pass a good bill with 60-70 votes than a hopelessly compromised bill with 70-80 votes. The Senate bill is already a carefully balanced compromise between the right and the left.”

Already Sen. Marco Rubio, under attack from the right, is suggesting he’ll entertain amendments designed to toughen border security and slow the path to citizenship. That might win Republican support – but would it come at the expense of Democratic Senate votes? “You don’t want to threaten the more than 50 votes we expect from Democrats in order to pick up an extra five to seven votes from Republicans,” Sharry told the Hill. But that presumes there are more than one or two Democrats who would withhold support from the bill if it gets too compromised. I’m not sure that’s the case.

When Leahy’s LGBT amendments foundered, I wondered: Why were Democrats helping Republicans by sacrificing the rights of a largely Democratic constituency, just to give Republicans a “safe” bill to support? (Even Leahy supported the bill in the end.) People throw around the term “wedge issue”; this was the very definition of a wedge issue, designed to split two core Democratic constituencies, LGBT folks and Latinos, and hopefully pit them against one another in a lasting way, causing long-term electoral strife for the Democratic Party. Even better, Democrats were helping Republicans politically -- neutralizing immigration reform as a partisan issue, and giving the GOP a new shot at Latino voters -- while hurting themselves politically.

So far the fracas hasn’t shattered the Obama coalition. Although LGBT groups protested their exclusion from the bill’s protections, they haven’t tried to blow it up, unlike their counterparts on the opposite side of the issue. But now that they’ve set this tone of compromise, watch Democrats face similar choices again and again, as Republicans demand new and dramatic changes to the bill in order to win their support.

“I think opposition is going to escalate dramatically once the bill hits the floor in a way that people do not expect. People are working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that happens,” an aide to a conservative GOP senator told the Hill.

“There’s no question that it’s going to be significantly more pushback. The question is if it’s enough to stop the bill in the Senate. I’d say the odds are better than even,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies. “There are so many scandals going on with the Obama administration that it’s distracting a lot of people. The outrage can only be focused in so many directions,” he continued. As the right turns up the heat on the GOP, Senate progressives will feel it too, as leadership works hard to keep Democrats on board as Republicans jump ship.

The immigration reform bill isn’t the only example of this dynamic. The Affordable Care Act incorporated more than 150 Republican amendments during the Senate committee process – and didn’t get a single Republican vote. Important liberal priorities like the public option, letting people buy into  Medicare before 65 and greater bargaining power to lower prescription drug costs all got traded away in search of nonexistent GOP support. I was pilloried by other liberals, on “Hardball” and on Twitter, for even briefly suggesting that no bill might be better than a bad bill. Same with the deals that ended the debt-ceiling hostage crisis – the “sugar-coated Satan sandwich” – and postponed the “fiscal cliff.”

One reason Democrats compromise is that they genuinely care about the people who will be helped – or hurt – by the pending legislation, while Republicans are more willing to play chicken, whether that’s at the expense of the uninsured, undocumented immigrants or (as was the case with the debt ceiling) the global economy.

But on immigration reform, Democrats ought to hold the line. Because whatever watered-down bill passes the Senate, it will get even worse in order to win a majority of the House. Abandoning ever-larger categories of potential beneficiaries of the bill, in order to win support for some kind of legislation, is bad for undocumented immigrants, and bad for Democrats, too.

By Joan Walsh