Looking past November: Why the Gang of Eight might be making a comeback

Lindsay Graham and other pols are itching to overhaul immigration laws, a sign they've given up on the White House

Published July 7, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Lindsey Graham   (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Lindsey Graham (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

Will 2017 see a reboot of the Senate’s Gang of Eight immigration-reform effort? That is the question at the center of this Politico story, which picks up on Sen. Lindsey Graham’s contention in a recent interview that his first order of business after the new Congress is sworn in next January will be “to take the Gang of Eight bill out, dust it off and ask anybody and everybody who wants to work with me to make it better to do so.”

Graham isn’t the only member of the Senate itching to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who will likely lead the Democratic caucus next year, has said he would make reform a priority. Republicans from states with large Latino populations – and, not incidentally, industries that rely on a heavy supply of both documented and undocumented workers to keep their labor costs down and their profit margins up – are also anxious to tackle reform.

This talk is happening in the shadow of tangerine-colored circus clown Donald Trump’s seizing the Republican nomination on the strength of a level of nativism and xenophobia not seen in presidential politics in decades. Which makes immigration reform a bellwether for the direction of the Republican Party over the next few years.

If the Senate passes comprehensive reform, and if Paul Ryan can force that bill or some nearly-identical version of it through the House despite what will surely be vociferous resistance from his base, particularly from the far-right House Freedom Caucus, that will be a sign that at least a few adults have grabbed back control of the GOP, or are trying to. If the Senate doesn’t pass a reform bill, or if Ryan caves in to the HFC (a much more likely scenario – nothing scares Paul Ryan so much as the possibility that he’ll have to be confrontational with his own caucus), then we might be able to write the Republican Party’s obituary.

That Graham and his Republican compatriots are floating trial balloons on this topic at a time when the party base is in the grips of a nativist paranoia, which has it seeing job-stealing Hispanic migrants and Islamic terrorist sleeper cells around every corner, shows just how completely they have already given up on capturing the White House and are thinking about the GOP’s electoral viability down the road. Whether a Hillary Clinton landslide combined with crushing down-ballot defeats in November will convince the base of the folly of the direction it took in this year’s primaries is a big question.

Whether the reformers will pay attention if the base remains unconvinced is another question. They didn’t four years ago, and the determination to push ahead with the Gang of Eight legislation forced Marco Rubio to awkwardly flip-flop on his pro-reform position before contributing to his crushing loss in the presidential primaries. (Rubio and John McCain, who is locked in a tough re-election battle in Arizona, are the only two original Gang of Eight members who haven’t committed to reviving the legislation.)

Given the levels of Latino support for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, it is obvious to anyone with a functioning pulse that the GOP is going to have to make inroads with those voters in the future if it ever wants to win another presidential election. The GOP has known this since the infamous post-2012 campaign autopsy commissioned by RNC chairman Reince Priebus, which spurred the original Gang of Eight to craft its legislation in the first place. The autopsy specifically cited the party’s low standing with Latino voters as something that would need to be improved upon if the party was going to not go the way of the Whigs in the future.

Or, one final scenario for post-2016 immigration reform: The GOP will do nothing and blame Hillary Clinton for being “untrustworthy,” which was the excuse they pinned on Barack Obama when the original Gang of Eight Senate bill died in the House. In which case it will be clear that the inmates are still running the asylum.

By Gary Legum

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