Through a combination of political necessity and cold, hard reality, the U.S. Senate last week approved the most far-reaching immigration reform bill in almost 30 years. The question now is whether the House will go along. The answer is: doubtful. The House is lately moved neither by necessity nor reality.
The Senate passed the bill in a 68-32 vote that drew the support of 14 Republicans – an unheard of occurrence in a party whose main goal has been to obstruct anything supported by Democrats, especially President Obama. The difference this time is that Republican relevance is on the line.
Hispanics represent a potent and growing share of the electorate, and twice they have voted for Obama in massive numbers. Republicans who are paying attention understand this is a mortal threat aimed straight at their presidential aspirations, if not their long-term survival. Chief among their problems with Hispanic voters has been the party’s outright hostility to them, as demonstrated in its support of Mitt Romney and his preposterous call for immigrants who are here illegally to self-deport.
Thus, enough Republicans joined with Senate Democrats to prevent the filibuster that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had otherwise promised. The bill creates an arduous path to citizenship, requiring 13 years to complete and the payment of any taxes owing as well as a $500 fine. It also requires significant and expensive new steps to secure the southern border, including towers, ground sensors, thermal imaging, unmanned aircraft systems, Blackhawk helicopters, marine vessels, construction of a 700-mile fence and the hiring of 20,000 new Border Patrol agents. Thus, it was what many conservatives usually like to deride as a government program.
Whether even that amount of spending can stem the tide of illegal immigration is questionable, but it is, in fact, a reasonable response to a real problem. The security measures are part of a strong bill that the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” including New York’s Charles Schumer, worked hard to produce, demonstrating that it is possible to compromise on important national goals.
Now, though, the matter goes to the House, where Speaker John Boehner has already rejected the Senate bill, announcing that his circular firing squad will take up its own measure. House leaders have no appetite for creating a path to citizenship, partly because of an absolutist approach to just about everything, partly because Obama and Democrats support it. Indeed, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has already been excoriated by some Republicans for supporting a measure that has Democratic backing. Such is the juvenile state of today’s national Republican Party.
Prospects of both chambers coming up with a bill that they can agree on seem remote, but that’s the requirement if the country is to bring millions of people out of the shadows – people, it is important to note, who otherwise aren’t going anywhere – and if the Republican Party has hopes of retaking the White House anytime soon.
There is a famous aphorism, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact. It will be interesting to see if House Republicans feel the same about their devotion to extreme politics.