Now the House will destroy immigration reform

Senators were very pleased with themselves yesterday for passing a major immigration bill that the House GOP hates

Published June 28, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

               (<a href=''>trekandshoot</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(trekandshoot via Shutterstock)

Much of the nation rejoiced yesterday when the United States Senate passed the comprehensive immigration bill a bipartisan group of senators have spent months crafting and selling, by the impressive margin of 68 to 32. For once, when writing about the Senate, the bigger number represents the senators who voted with the winning side. Even Marco Rubio, a "Gang of Eight" member who lately has been sounding shaky in his support of the final product, voted yea. (Rand Paul voted nay, because he decided he couldn't support a "path to citizenship" despite basically endorsing the idea a few months ago.)

Yesterday was the fun part, with Joe Biden banging the gavel and the gallery chanting "yes we can" and so on. Now comes the part where we are reminded of the existence of the House Republican Caucus, which is made up primarily of angry idiots. While it's true that something closely resembling the Senate bill could probably pass the House with a majority of votes, those votes would include far more Democrats than Republicans. Speaker of the House John Boehner would probably stop being speaker of the House if he pursued that approach. And, indeed, he's basically promised not to.

As National Review reporter Robert Costa -- who you can definitely trust on these things -- reports, Boehner is dedicated to "regular order" in the House, which means not putting the Senate bill up for a vote in the House and instead putting immigration reform in the hands of conservative Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte. Goodlatte wants to pass a bunch of smaller bills, instead of a big "comprehensive" one. He wants to do this so that the House can beef up border security and make deportation even easier without also having to vote for citizenship.


In divided government, Boehner is concerned far more with cohesion within his ranks than about becoming a bill’s cheerleader. When he has broken the “Hastert rule” over the past year — on the fiscal-cliff vote and on Sandy relief — there’s been pain.

This isn’t to say that immigration reform is dead. Boehner appears open to bringing a bill to the floor if, months from now, a conference-committee report somehow wins backing of a majority of the House GOP. In the meantime, don’t expect much from the man who eats at the same stool each morning at Pete’s.

"Months from now" and "conference-committee report" are not really encouraging signs, for people who actually want a bill that makes it possible for undocumented citizens to ever earn citizenship.

The senators responsible for the bill were all quite self-congratulatory after their big, still potentially meaningless victory, mostly because senators are self-congratulatory when they do anything, and often when they don't do anything, but they know that "months from now" and "conference-committee report" are bad news for reformers. ("I just wish now I could go over to the House for a few months and work this out over there," Republican "gang" member Jeff Flake said.) Nate Cohn has some realism for these happy senators, saying at the New Republic that reform is dying basically the same way it died in 2006, when the Senate passed a bill that went nowhere in the House. As Cohn says, "If the Senate bill can only attract 30 percent of Senate Republicans, it has no chance of earning 50 percent of the more conservative House GOP caucus."

There's still the conference-committee report, though! Might we get something eventually? Perhaps, but it probably won't be anything anyone actually likes.

The point of getting a big bipartisan vote in the Senate (the entirely arbitrary goal was 70 votes, a stupid goal that led conservatives to crow about the vote falling "well short" at 68) and then putting that Senate bill up for a vote in the House as close to unchanged as possible was to avoid the situation that is now practically inevitable: The Senate bill, carefully crafted to win conservative support, is now the "left-most" edge of the immigration debate, and the House will produce the right-wing version, and commentators and some legislators will expect the final product to be somewhere directly between the two. Which means we'll end up with a "reform" package so punitive, and so security- and deportation-based, that it will probably lose liberal support.

Goodlatte opposes citizenship for those currently here without visas, and he's already passed a bill officially making undocumented immigration an actual federal crime. His "reform" looks like this: giving all manner of law enforcement in the United States the power and authority to enforce immigration law against people who are now properly felons. Giving those felons no opportunity to become citizens, obviously. And also an agricultural guest worker program, so that these guys can continue picking our crops for sub-market wages, and then go back to wherever they came from. You put all these together with the Senate bill, in a conference committee, and it's hard to see the final product ending up looking like something Democrats would want to vote for. It may not even be something the president wants to sign.

Remember, House Republicans both don't believe that supporting reform is crucial for the future of their party, and believe that supporting citizenship is disastrous for their own immediate political futures. They are probably more right than wrong, especially on the second count.

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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