What's Next for Immigration Reform?

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For the first time since 2007—and arguably, for the first time in decades—a comprehensive immigration-reform bill stands a good chance of passing the Senate. Built over the last seven months by a bipartisan group of senators (the “Gang of Eight”), the 867-page proposal comes to the floor of the Senate this week, where lawmakers will debate its provisions, and Republicans will have to decide if passing reform is more important than avoiding the political consequences of working with President Obama (and thus becoming a target for conservative activists).

In the Senate, we’re almost there. On Saturday, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte—a conservative favorite—announced her support for the bill, praising its pathway to citizenship as “tough but fair,” saying that immigrants would “go to the back of the line, pay taxes, pass a criminal background check, learn English.” “Our immigration system is completely broken,” she said on CBS’s Face the Nation, “This is a thoughtful, bipartisan solution to a tough problem.”

And while Florida Senator Marco Rubio has occasionally warned that he might oppose the bill—if the Senate doesn’t agree to certain border security provisions—he’s also working to secure support from conservative activists and media personalities—the kinds of people who could lead the charge against the proposal, or keep opposition at bay. National Journal captures the dynamic:

Despite Rubio’s public kvetching about the bill (he said again Monday that it doesn’t have the 60 votes it needs to pass), his rhetorical meandering has drawn no public or private complaints from his fellow bill writers or their aides. They know he’s their best, if not only, shot at picking up conservative votes in the Senate and House—and wooing conservative media that influence the base.

If you assume support for the bill from other members of the Gang of Eight—John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Jeff Flake—as well as the full support of all Democrats and independents, then you’re left with a one-vote gap in the likely event of a filibuster (and right now, Texas Senator Ted Cruz looks like the man who will take point on opposition to the bill).

If supporters can fill that gap, and get the bill out of the Senate, it will fall into the House, where John Boehner is currently planning his approach to passing immigration reform. As Politico reported yesterday, the House Speaker wants the various committees to finish their version of immigration legislation before the July 4 recess. What’s more, he would like a final vote before Congress leaves again in August.

This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s big news. Immigration reform has always had decent chances in the Senate. The House is a different story. There, conservative lawmakers have questioned the need for reform—“There is no evidence to support this idea that Republicans will pick up a lot of votes if we give amnesty to 11 million folks,” says Representative Tim Huelskamp, of Kansas—and have disparaged immigration reform as a push for political advantage by Democrats.

Yes, Boehner hasn’t given much in the way of details, but as Politico notes, “the fact that Republican leadership is willing to discuss the process for immigration reform, represents a significant shift and suggests a new urgency for Republican leadership. It is a moderately good sign for the prospects of immigration reform in the House.”

None of this is to say an immigration-reform bill is guaranteed. The Senate still has to debate amendments that could change political calculations for lawmakers on both sides, while Boehner has to decide on an optimal legislative strategy for the House—does he attempt to pass an immigration bill with Republicans, or does he lean on Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party for support. The latter is easier, but the former helps bolster the claim that Republicans want to reform the immigration system.

After all, if the goal is to bolster GOP prospects with Latino voters, then it’s better if Republicans can place a firm stamp on the package. To be seen as an obstacle to reform—and not an ally—is a terrible place for a GOP that needs to keep with the demographic times.