Thursday, August 03, 2006

Immigration Debate Growing More Complex

I have been predicting for some time that the Congress would enact an immigration reform bill this year. However, events of the last few weeks have made me think that maybe I put my first-born at risk too hastily.

In the last few weeks, Republicans have received more bad news regarding their Congressional majorities. Where the June-July period seemed to show signs of the President and GOP candidates surging, that seems to have hit a plateau. Now candidates are hearing more about the potential for a Democratic takeover of one or both Houses.

Further, Members of Congress are (by and large) spending August in their home districts. Congressmen always hear a lot from constituents this month, and return to Washington with a strong inclination that the must do... something. After the Easter recess, they returned to DC shocked at how pervasive was the sentiment that illegal immigration is a problem. What will they hear in August? My sense is that so far, they are hearing that they ought not give in to a legalization compromise on immigration.

So come September, Republicans might well return to Washington with a few big ideas: they may not be in control of Congress in a few months, and they must not compromise on immigration.

But Congress is clearly more likely to deliver a strong enforcement bill under Republican leadership. If no bill is enacted this year and Democrats take over one or both Houses of Congress, a compromise more like McCain-Kennedy becomes very likely. Republicans who want a strong enforcement bill - particularly those in the House - should therefore try to get a deal done before the elections.

But if Senate Democrats see Republicans on the run, and trying to forge a quick enforcement-only deal, they ought to be more emboldened to block it - either by filibuster or more likely, simple foot-dragging. This strategy should give them the chance to pass a 'better deal' from their point of view, after the election.

But then again, if Democrats do this, they may be handing Republicans a huge political opportunity. Congressional leaders could call a special Congressional session in late October to deal solely with immigration. The House would once again pass an enforcement-only bill, and send it to the Senate. Democrats would be forced either to swallow hard and give the Republicans a big victory right before the election, or to filibuster border enforcement.

Who would 'win' politically in such a scenario? Democrats might well motivate their base, but wouldn't they suffer a significant blow among critical independent voters, just a week or so before the election? And would Republicans suffer any more among hispanic voters than (some argue) they already have? Wouldn't the Republican base be strongly motivated with a such a demonstration of backbone?

Update: And by the way, Congressmen from Florida look like they might come back and push harder for a deal that gurantees a steady supply of migrant workers. Although I don't have a cite for an article, that's likely true of California's central valley as well, where there has always been support for guestworker programs.

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