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The State of Play in the House of Representatives

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In the past week the fight for immigration reform in the House of Representatives has been shaken up by some key developments.  This has led to much discussion and analysis regarding their impact.  Some have grown more pessimistic, but we at America’s Voice have become more optimistic.  Here’s our take.


Four key developments

  • A week ago Friday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) went public with the fact that the bipartisan group working on reform legislation in the House was disbanding.  The reason?  Not policy differences, but partisan politics.  The Group of 7 had stalled out because, according to Gutierrez, “The bipartisan group just wasn’t getting support from Republican House leadership.”
  • Later last Friday, fellow Group of 7 members Reps. Sam Johnson (R-TX) and John Carter (R-TX) put their own spin on the group’s breakup.  They blamed Obama.
  • Also last Friday, reform champions Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Filemón Vela (D-TX) introduced the CIR ASAP Act.
  • Finally, this week, news broke that House Democrats are gearing up to introduce legislation based on the bipartisan Senate bill but with some changes, such as swapping in the McCaul-Thompson border security bill in exchange for the border surge amendment added to the final Senate bill.  Thus, Democrats are doing exactly what they said they would do in August.  Frustrated with the slow speed of House GOP action on immigration reform, they issued an ultimatum: introduce a broad bipartisan bill by the end of September, or the Democrats would introduce one of their own.

What does this mean?  Our view is that these developments actually improve chances for real bipartisanship and the passage of reform this year.


But What About the Conventional Wisdom that Says We’re Dead?

We understand that our optimism stands in contrast to the inside-the-beltway pessimism about our chances.  But then, when has the conventional wisdom about our movement and our cause been accurate?  Over the years we’ve been told that Latino and immigrant voters would never make a difference in electoral outcomes; that immigration is a third rail issue that works against Democrats in favor of Republicans; that the anti-immigrant movement and the Tea Party are much stronger than pro-reform forces; that immigration reform with a path to citizenship is too far out of the mainstream and too unpopular to gain traction; that President Obama would never take bold executive action to protect DREAMers; that we would never be able to dominate our opponents over the August recess; and so forth.  The conventional wisdom turned out to be wrong in every case.  We predict that our power will trump their predictions once again.


From Process Games to Policy Outcomes

The most frustrating aspect of the current situation is that real movement in the House depends on House Republican leaders.  While we continue to do everything we can to ratchet up the pressure – from organizing in districts, holding rallies, getting arrested and demanding action – the fact remains that they control the agenda and timing.  The good news is that House leadership has made it clear that inaction is not an option and that they are gearing up for votes in the fall.  The bad news is that they’ve conceded to their right on process.  Thus, they say they won’t bring up the Senate bill, will proceed with piecemeal legislation rather than one comprehensive bill and will observe the so-called Hastert Rule (bills will only come up for floor votes if a majority of the majority – 117 Republicans – support the measure).

So, how do we navigate a weak House Republican leadership, a divided House Republican caucus and the  process excuses they’ve thrown in the way of progress?  For one, let’s come from strength.  Today – right now – the votes exist in the House to pass broad immigration reform with a path to citizenship.  With some 195 Democrats in favor, and with 26 Republicans declared, we have more than 218 votes.

Second, we should bear in mind that the only way House Republicans can pass anything on immigration is with Democratic votes.  This is because some 25 – 30 of the 234 House Republicans (think Rep. Steve King and his allies) have announced their intention to oppose any immigration bill that comes to the House floor for fear that it will lead to negotiations with the Senate and end up as a comprehensive approach that includes a path to citizenship.  How might this need for Democratic votes play out?  Let’s say Speaker Boehner and company decide they want to pass the McCaul-Thompson border security bill as well as the so-called KIDS Act (the House GOP version of the DREAM Act which is expected to be introduced soon).  Both would probably be able to attract a majority of Republicans.  But the only way Republicans can get to 218 votes on both measures is with Democratic votes.

This gives House Democrats leverage – on policy and process.  In exchange for Democratic votes, they could demand improvements in the policy dimensions of the measures, insist that the GOP drop the SAFE Act and request the House leadership to announce their intention to enter into good faith negotiation with the Senate on all relevant issues, including legalization with a path to citizenship.  Since it is expected that comprehensive reformers will have the upper hand in House-Senate negotiations, this is but one way for a piecemeal process in the House to result in a comprehensive bill coming out of conference.

The Next “Bipartisan Moment”

Once Republicans decide to move forward in the House, and once they realize they can do nothing without Democratic votes, a new bipartisan moment will be on hand.  Re-enter, stage left, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, House Democratic Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra and House Immigration Subcommittee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren.  Freed up from a moribund process that was going nowhere, they are in a perfect position to work with Republicans to win policy and process concessions.  They have proven their commitment to bipartisan reform by working in good faith with Republicans on immigration reform, they enjoy support from the immigration reform movement and they are committed to getting reform enacted this year.  When Republicans come knocking, it is these champions who will be there to open the door.


Democrats Introduce a Bill to Rally the Troops and Pressure Republicans

Up until last week, Democrats were deferring to the G7 Working Group.  With the demise of that initiative, Democrats are gearing up to do what they promised: As the New Democratic Caucus made clear in August, if the bipartisan process yields no bill by the end of September 30th, Democrats would introduce one of their own.  So, the New Democratic Coalition, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Progressive Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus are working on a bill that is anchored in bipartisan policy and aimed at rallying the Democrats and pressuring the Republicans.

From our point of view, this is a smart strategy.  It will put Democrats on record, and it will likely compel pro-reform Republicans to either support the bill or pressure their leadership to take action, both of which will pressure the House Republican leadership to find a way forward.

Why a bill based on the bipartisan  Senate bill?  Because it will put extra pressure on for those 26 House Republicans who say they are for reform with a path to citizenship.  They and other pro-reform Republicans will have to decide whether or not to support legislation that was drafted by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), voted for by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and improved on with a border security measure authored by Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX).

We don’t expect this bill to be the vehicle for action in the House, for ultimately only House Republicans leadership will decide what is brought forward and when.  But we do expect the existence of this bill to remind people, over and over, that until they act, the Republicans are blocking reform.  The goal is not partisan gridlock but a new “bipartisan moment.”


Our Path to Victory is Based on Strong Fundamentals and a Strong Movement

We understand that it’s hard to imagine such a dysfunctional Congress doing something as big as immigration reform.  But at the end of the day, we believe our fundamentals are stronger than their dysfunction.  For example, the Republicans need to pass reform and share credit for doing so for their survival as a national party; the Democrats need to pass reform to show Latinos and immigrants they can deliver change and not just promises; the American people hunger for their leaders to solve tough problems and support our solution; and pro-reform constituencies from across the political spectrum are stronger than ever.

Moreover, as we all know, this issue and our movement are not going away.  There are 11 million undocumented immigrants and millions of friends and allies who simply won’t give up.  We can’t.  Every single day of delay inflicts a heavy toll.  Every day Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy delay, another one thousand families are torn apart.   Every day President Obama and DHS continue the detention and deportation mill that results in 400,000 deportations a year, immigrants who would be eligible for relief under pending legislation are ripped away from their homes and jobs.  This is what drives us to fight for legislative relief and executive action.

Finally, we are not some legislative campaign that will go away once legislation passes or not.  We are a broad, deep and dynamic movement that gets stronger every day.  We will fight until we win dignity and respect for all immigrants.  We will not stop and we will find a way.  In fact, we are closer than many think.  Let’s stay positive, stay focused and draw strength from the hope, optimism and power of the immigrants we fight with and for.