News Journal: : Politics of immigration reform won’t be pretty

Last summer, when the political campaigns of 2012 were beginning to heat up, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone in Washington who believed a bipartisan immigration bill would get through Congress in 2013.

In debate after debate, Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination emphasized border protection and vowed to block any bill that granted any kind of “amnesty” or a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants. The party finally nominated Mitt Romney, whose platform on immigration was based on a hardline “self-deportation” policy. President Obama promised that any immigration reform bill that did not include a pathway to citizenship was dead on arrival.

What a difference Obama’s 71 percent share of the Hispanic vote made. Republican analysts looked at the demographic trends and realized that if they continued to lose the Hispanic vote by margins like that they would never again win a presidential election.

There have been a few other signs of bipartisanship since January. The House and the Senate both passed budget bills for the first time in years. Without waiting for their usual last-minute deadline, they quietly voted to fund the government through the end of the year. There was even a bipartisan effort in the Senate to expand background checks on guns. Although it failed to get the required 60 votes, I am betting it will come up for another vote before too long.

But the major sign of bipartisanship in the Senate was the historic 68-32 vote last month for an immigration reform bill that would give a pathway to citizenship to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Seventeen of the 46 Republicans in the Senate voted for the bill, proof that Washington is not gridlocked on every issue.

At least in the Senate. The House is a very different story. As I write this, it looks as though the House will break up the single immigration bill into pieces, and pass only those parts of it that emphasize border protection and stricter controls on employer hiring.

Why is the House so different from the Senate on this issue? I have written before about how and why so many congressional districts have become overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. Those that are Democratic tend to be in large, heavily populated urban districts; Republicans tend to be in less-populated rural districts. The result is that in 2012, for the first time since 1942, a party won the House of Representatives, but lost the overall popular vote.

There are 234 Republican-held districts in this Congress. 144 have fewer than 10 percent Hispanic voters; 192 have fewer than 20 percent.

Polling shows that, in these districts, large majorities of voters do not support an immigration reform bill with a gateway to citizenship. They expect the people they elect to vote that way.

But is something like the Senate bill absolutely doomed? Keep in mind that even representatives from the most anti-immigration-reform districts are under pressure from pro-reform organizations that are usually part of the Republican coalition. Sen. John McCain was on Bloomberg TV last Sunday. He reiterated his support for immigration reform and went on to say: “We need to have –the broadest coalition I’ve ever seen is behind this bill, business, labor, the evangelicals, Catholic Church, high tech, agriculture business, agriculture workers. …They have to be contacting their elected representatives and say we want you to look at this issue. Don’t we agree that 11 million people in the shadows is de facto amnesty? Please, members of Congress, pass a bill. …Then we go to conference and we come out with a result you can vote for or against.”

If there were a straight up-or-down vote in the House of Representatives, most observers believe enough Republicans would join the Democrats to pass a Senate-like bill. But Speaker Boehner has said a number of times he will follow the “Hastert Rule,” which requires a majority of the Republicans in the House to agree on any legislation before it is brought to the floor.

What’s going to happen? Boehner has broken the Hastert Rule three times this year, and who knows? It might happen again, although it might cost him his Speakership. I think the likeliest scenario is that we will get to the end of the year still deadlocked. At that point, I think President Obama and other Democratic leaders will explain to the American people, who overwhelmingly want reform, why it hasn’t happened.

My bet is that those Republicans who understand what the changing demographics in this country mean to their party’s future will then prevail. We will get meaningful immigration reform, but seeing how it happens won’t be pretty. Stay tuned.

Ted Kaufman is a former US Senator from Delaware.