Don't buy the "immigration reform might really happen this time!" hype

Harry Reid and the Dems are trying to push the House GOP into tackling immigration reform. Curb your enthusiasm

Published May 23, 2014 2:34PM (EDT)

Marco Rubio                               (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Marco Rubio (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Senate Democrats are turning up the pressure on House Republicans to act on immigration reform. That means attempting to call Republicans' bluff for why they're stalling on the issue: that they wouldn't trust President Obama to carry out the law. He is not trustful, because of Benghazi and Obamacare delays and so forth. He's a mean lying Chicago pol. This excuse allows them both to dodge the issue and reiterate midterm election attacks on the president and his party.

The only problem is that no one buys this excuse, since it's laughable. They can't pass legislation because they don't trust the president to enforce it? Extend that logic and it means they should no longer pass any single piece of legislation on any issue, because President Obama will just throw it away. GOP lawmakers should simply sit at home for the next 1.5 years and return their salaries to the Treasury general fund. Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea at all; it may even be something that the public and both ends of the political spectrum can agree on.

Now Harry Reid and the Senate Democrat leadership believe they've found a carrot-and-stick approach to draw Republicans out of their corner. As a peace offering, Democrats will agree to a solution that wouldn't go into effect until 2017, after the comprehensively untrustworthy President Obama would be out of office. "If Republicans don’t trust President Obama, let’s give them a chance to implement the bill under President Rand Paul or President Theodore Cruz," Harry Reid, who is getting weirder by the day, said on Thursday. Reid also threatened that if House Republicans don't act in the next six weeks -- between when primaries are wrapping up and the end of the summer legislative calendar -- then Democrats will support unilateral executive action by the president to slow deportations.

Never say never, but we don't think this changes the House GOP leadership's calculus that "doing absolutely nothing" on immigration reform is still their best available option this year (as much as Boehner, personally, may want to).

The first reason, which is strong enough on its own, is that the last thing a party wants to do ahead of elections is blow itself up into factions. The party is in decent shape heading into November. It's not going to set off a bomb on the most divisive issue within the party right now.

The idea that the Republicans will suddenly be willing to deal on immigration once the sign-up period for primary challenges ends is also overrated. It's the same cynical thought process the GOP business community shows when it suggests Republicans could take on immigration in the lame-duck period: once the immediate political threat of primaries or general elections is over, legislators can do whatever the hell they want. Politics is cold stuff, but fellas, that is some very cold stuff. The GOP is a party that is paranoid at all turns of offending any single person within its base. For candidates to get through primaries, after which they've taken the staunchest anti-immigration positions available to them, and then turn around to voters and say Hahaha, morons, we're gonna do immigration now? It's not just that this would be "mean," which it absolutely would be. (It would also be funny, but never mind.) It's that the base would then take it out on them in the next election cycle, and primary every Republican member of Congress. It's not as if 2014 is America's final election. Republican activists may have selective memories, but they remember slights very well, and punches in the face even better.

Finally, an executive action or two by the president to slow deportations and achieve some of immigration reformers' other goals wouldn't doom the Republican Party politically. They do not care about policy as much as they care about having more stuff to whine about. Obama could make the move to energize the Democratic base, and Republicans could whine about Obama's tyrannical rule to energize theirs. Each party would get something out of it. In this way, a "compromise" of sorts on immigration could go down this year, just not in the traditional "two parties work together to pass a piece of legislation" sense. But hey, a broken country's gotta do what a broken country's gotta do! Happy Memorial Day weekend.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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