Is It Time for Obama to Go Nuclear on Immigration?

PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks to injured veterans at the Disabled American Veterans National Convention in Orlando, Florida, August 10, 2013. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks to injured veterans at the Disabled American Veterans National Convention in Orlando, Florida, August 10, 2013.

Are Republicans ready to kill immigration reform? There’s a growing sense in the liberal blogosphere that’s the case.

Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall has already seen enough. Immigration reformers just won’t “accept the writing on the wall” that their efforts are “likely dead in this Congress,” he wrote on Tuesday.

It’s better for Obama and Democrats to launch a cavalcade of campaign-style events to hammer Republicans on immigration leading up to the 2014 elections than continue to try and produce a bill, he wrote.

“Stop pretending that the GOP House’s hardening resolve to kill the Senate bill is going to change and take this whole question back to the people looking forward to the 2014 election,” Marshall continued. “There’s a curious elite belief that going into ‘campaign mode’ is somehow dirty or tawdry or that it makes it harder to come up with the compromises necessary for legislation. But that is nonsense.”

Surely, there are reasons to be pessimistic about the chances for reform to pass. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, an influential GOP lawmaker on immigration, made negative comments about a “special” pathway to citizenship on Tuesday. Leaders haven’t committed one way or another to voting on a path; it’s clear that a majority of House Republicans aren’t fond of the idea. Plus, the House GOP’s decision to address immigration reform through a series of bills could be used as a way to slow-walk the process to death, while attempting to avoid blame for doing nothing.

And that’s not to mention the fact that the House GOP has stood in the way of every one of Obama’s top agenda items, from new gun laws to tax reform.

But immigration advocates who spoke to Fusion said that Obama should maintain his low-key public stance on the issue. If Obama begins campaigning on the issue, they say, that means immigration reform is dead. And they don’t believe it’s over yet.

Obama has refrained from taking an aggressive public approach on immigration reform, a top legislative priority, for one reason: it’s a major turnoff to Republicans who are needed to pass a bill out of a divided Congress.

Only six percent of House Republicans represent districts that Obama won in 2012, according to veteran political analyst Charlie Cook. About the same number represent districts that have enough Latino voters to swing the outcome of an election. In sum, the vast majority have more to fear by looking too friendly toward Obama, since that could trigger a primary challenge from the right.

“He’s played the right role so far, the outside cheerleader,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on June 12. “That’s been useful and effective. As a Republican, it would be more difficult if he were out front pushing this issue.”

Frank Sharry, executive director of the left-leaning pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, said that's unlikely to change even though immigration faces a tougher climb in the House than it did in the Senate.

“It makes me sad to say so, but it’s an unfortunate reality of a Republican Party that sees him as the anti-Christ," he said.

Still, advocates see positive momentum developing over the August recess. The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has more on that here, but in short, there’s been no public anti-reform backlash and around two dozen rank-and-file GOP lawmakers have come out in favor of a pathway to citizenship.

“I think we’re much better off than we were on August 1st because of what’s happened,” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “No, there hasn’t been a game-changing moment … but I am feeling way better. This easily could have gone south in August and it didn’t.”

But the GOP converts and the lack of August rancor are an indication to him that there is political room for a deal to be made, even if Republican leadership appears to be stalling by dividing the immigration reform into pieces.

If an overhaul is going to pass, “it’s going to be on the House Republican leadership’s terms,” Fitz said.

Advocates would have preferred that the House pass the Senate’s comprehensive overhaul. But they still believe that a final product can be accomplished, even if the House sticks to its plan to pass a series of bills.

“If that series adds up to a solution, even if it’s an inadequate one, that’s something that can be negotiated with the Senate,” Fitz added.

Advocates believe the House will hold votes on immigration reform in the fall, and they are going to give them a chance to act before declaring the effort dead.

“If Republicans block reform, I suspect you’re going to be hearing a lot from President Obama about Republicans and immigration reform.” said Sharry. “But that comes after. I’m sure he’d much rather have a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden than a whistle-stop tour blaming Republicans.”