On Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor released a memo detailing the June legislative agenda for the House of Representatives, and in doing so drove yet another final nail into immigration reform’s already well-sealed coffin.
Cantor’s memo lays out the various bills and issues the House GOP plans to address over the next three weeks, and immigration is conspicuously absent. By leaving it off the agenda, Cantor has effectively cut in half the time available to the House to take up any reform proposals.
To recap: A bipartisan group of senators passed a comprehensive reform bill last June that has been gathering dust ever since. The House Republican leadership refuses to bring it to a vote. They also won’t bring their own immigration “principles” up for a vote. Every few weeks or so they renew their verbal commitment to immigration reform, and then continue doing absolutely nothing. President Obama threatened to take executive action to limit deportations, but recently backed off that threat in order to give the Republicans the time and space they needed to bring up a bill.
Cantor, in leaving immigration reform off the June agenda, has made clear that time and space are not the issue. The GOP is just not going to take up immigration reform. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made clear that the window for action by the Republicans closes at the end of July, just before the August recess. At that point, everyone expects Obama to move forward on his own.
You can guess what happens then. “Tyranny!” “Power-grab!” “Overreach!” The Republicans, who spurned every opportunity to compromise, will attack Obama for refusing to work with Congress. By that point the midterm elections will be too close to get anything done anyway. Everyone will retreat from policy into politics and the Senate reform bill will be quietly, solemnly interred next to its forbears.
There was never much hope of Cantor budging on immigration reform, but it certainly didn’t help that he’s come under fire in the last few weeks by Tea Party conservatives who suspect that he’s secretly working to implement “amnesty.” Cantor is facing a primary challenge from economics professor David Brat, who attacks Cantor mercilessly for his work on the Kids Act (the Republican-friendly version of the Dream Act). Cantor will defeat Brat and he’ll defeat him handily, but he still needs to take him seriously because Brat is pulling in support from influential conservative figures like radio host Laura Ingraham. Part of Cantor’s strategy has been to highlight how he’s fought “amnesty” for “illegal aliens.”
So he’s not going to lose, but he’s still had to shift to the right to try to make amends with the conservatives who are deeply suspicious that any attempt at reform will be too lenient on undocumented immigrants. Cantor’s facing a no-win situation on immigration reform, and for now the best option for him politically is to do nothing, so he’s killing immigration reform through inaction.
While we’re on the topic of conservatives pressuring the leadership on hot-button issues, Cantor’s June memo is also noteworthy for what it says about healthcare reform. Early last month, the House Republicans unexpectedly went dark on Obamacare – after years of hearings and countless repeal votes, legislators suddenly seemed to lose interest in the health law. According to Cantor’s memo, the cease-fire will come to an end as the House GOP plans to do … something on healthcare:
Our committees continue to work to expose the harmful effects of Obamacare and refine different policies that reduce costs, expand access and provide patients with greater control over their healthcare. We will be discussing these policy options with you in the weeks ahead in anticipation of additional floor action.
Cantor’s vague promise to discuss unnamed “policy options” comes on the heels of an effort by the hard-line conservative Republican Study Committee to force the leadership into scheduling a vote on the RSC’s Obamacare replacement plan.
Conservative members of the rank-and-file have to be frustrated with Cantor on Obamacare. In January he promised that “we will rally around an alternative to Obamacare and pass it on the floor of the House.” In February he said that the finishing touches were being put on the Obamacare replacement plan. Since then there’s been no action to speak of.
Cantor and the rest of the leadership haven’t picked a replacement plan because doing so would present significant political risks. Any plan they choose would necessarily require huge disruptions to the insurance market, and the Republican alternative plans that have been put forward to date would cover far fewer people than Obamacare. The surging expansion of Medicaid complicates their efforts even further; people are signing up in droves and are making enthusiastic use of the program, and Republicans are left to argue that they should be transitioned off their newly obtained government-paid insurance. That’s a tough sell, even if the ACA’s approval rating is in the gutter.
Introducing an Obamacare replacement would also put Republican midterm candidates in a tough spot, as it would force them to take a position on health reform policy at a time when many of them are trying hard to be as evasive as possible.
The leadership has clearly gotten the message from conservatives that inaction on Obamacare is not an option. But they’re clearly still unsure of what to do. What does appear to be certain, however, is that conservatives are succeeding in boxing in the leadership on immigration and healthcare.