WASHINGTON— Earlier this year the prospects for immigration reform seemed bright. Republican congressional leaders, especially House Speaker John Boehner, shifted their tone and indicated a willingness to find common ground with President Barack Obama and Democrats on legalizing the status of millions who had entered the country unlawfully.
But the backlash was swift. When it came time to float the idea to the conservative Republican conference in the House of Representatives, the air was squeezed out of the balloon quicker than a giggling five-year old. When Speaker Boehner ran into conservative opposition within his own conference, he shifted the blame to President Obama, arguing that Republicans don’t trust him to enforce current immigration laws.
Rather than try to resolve differences in the party that have plagued Republicans for several years, the leadership decided the risks of inter-party warfare were too great during a congressional election year. Republican strategists focused on the short term political gains and argued that anything that took the party focus off of attacking Obamacare during the election cycle was a distraction and a waste of time. They won out. Immigration reform, it seems, has fallen victim to election politics yet again.
None of this is reassuring to moderate Republicans and many in the business community who fear the party may be adding to its long term woes by passing on immigration reform this year. President Obama lost the white vote to Mitt Romney in 2012 but it didn’t matter. The president won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote and the Obama coalition of young people, minorities and women carried him to re-election despite Romney’s strong showing with whites and even independent voters. Forward-looking Republicans are worried that the party is missing an opportunity this year to make some progress on immigration reform, something that might begin to soften the Republican image among Hispanic and Asian-American voters, the two fastest-growing groups in the electorate.
Could reform happen in 2015? It gets more complicated. The closer on the calendar you get to the Republican presidential primaries could work against any compromise on immigration reform. As we saw in the 2012 primaries, the deep divide within the party over how to handle illegal immigrants already in the country will be on full display during the various presidential candidate debates held before and during the primaries and caucus votes during the 2016 presidential election cycle. The odds of finding enough Republicans to support a compromise on immigration during this period would seem to be slim.
While Republicans appear to be passing on immigration reform, it looks as though they are abandoning their tactic of using votes on raising the debt limit to extract spending cuts from the president and Democrats in Congress. The decision this week to allow a “clean” debt limit bill to pass without any conditions or demands for additional spending cuts signals the end of a three-year strategy that Republican congressional leaders have now apparently deemed ineffective.
The culmination of that strategy was last October’s shutdown of the federal government, spurred by Tea Party enthusiasts both within and outside of Congress, who were desperate to show conservatives back home that they were serious about trying to kill the Obama health care law. But the tactic backfired on Republicans. Their approval rating as a party began to seriously plummet and only evened off after serious problems arose with the web site for the health care law, which in turn dominated news headlines for weeks.
The shutdown was a debacle for the Tea Party and emboldened mainstream Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to be less fearful of conservative threats and pressure. Congressional leaders quickly agreed on a budget framework that was signed into law by President Obama, and that was followed by this week’s strategy on the debt limit extension.
Conservative and Tea Party groups are very unhappy. The Senate Conservatives Fund, an independent group that strikes fear in the hearts of Republican senators seeking to avoid far-right primary challengers, issued a statement demanding that Boehner must be replaced. But unlike in past years, the reaction seems muted. Republican leaders sense that Tea Party organizers are back on their heels a bit after the shutdown fiasco. They are also being more aggressive in trying to weed out conservative primary challengers who can undermine Republican chances to win back control of the Senate this November.
Republicans sense an opportunity in this year’s midterm elections and they don’t want to blow it. They believe if they can field the right candidates in some key Senate races, they can both hold or increase their majority in the House and gain the six seats they need to take hold of the Senate. If that happens, they believe President Obama would be effectively boxed in for his final two years in office. Republicans would then have an opportunity to promote their proposals for smaller government in Congress as a kind of preview for the presidential election campaign two years from now. After eight years of President Obama, Republicans see winning their year’s congressional elections as a key step in returning to power in the White House in 2016.