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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

July 2: GOP Agony on Immigration Policy Isn’t Over

The recent craziness in the U.S. House, and the horrible images of kids in cages from the border, have not been good for the GOP. But as I explained at New York, there could be a lot more trouble where that came from.

With the dismal failure of two House Republican immigration bills in the last couple of weeks (bills that were doomed in the Senate in any event), there’s a sense that the Great Immigration Debate of 2018 in the GOP is over. After all, a lot of the recent agitation on the issue in the House was motivated by the desire of two different factions of Republican lawmakers — the moderates led by Representatives Jeff Denham of California and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, and the hard-liners centered in the House Freedom Caucus — to get their views on record before the November midterms. Everybody got to vote on the hard-core Goodlatte bill and the slightly less draconian compromise proposal — nicknamed Goodlatte II — so that’s all that had to happen, right?

Maybe, but maybe not. There are several future developments that could force the issue back into the limelight:

(1) A renewed bipartisan push to vote on Dreamers and more. The latest flurry of failed legislative activity in the House was successful in one limited respect: it did indeed head off a discharge petition (a rare procedure to bypass committees and the congressional leadership) that some of the GOP moderates were pushing — with the support of the entire Democratic caucus — that would have forced votes on a whole spectrum of immigration proposals, with the original DREAM Act being the most likely survivor of the process. Now that it has led to yet another dead end, it’s possible the discharge petition idea could come back.

If that looks like it could happen, you can expect Paul Ryan and the leadership to shout and scream about the perfidy of giving the godless Democrats power over the House floor schedule, at the risk of damaging vulnerable members like Denham and Curbelo, who are needed to keep the gavel out of Nancy Pelosi’s hands. Ultimately opponents of bipartisan immigration legislation would rely on VERY LOUD Trump promises to kill any such abomination should it arrive at his desk.

(2) A renewed uproar over the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant families. When the crisis over family separation at the border blew up in late June, it looked momentarily like Congress would be forced to act to stop the separations — until the president abruptly acted with an executive order that at least temporarily reversed his administration’s toxic policies. If the growing realization that kids are still being detained (just with their parents) revives the big public furor, and/or the courts strike down Trump’s executive order, the pressure for legislation could ramp right back up. But it’s not at all clear that any of the necessary parties to a quick legislative fix (House Republicans, Senate Democrats, or Trump) would go along with a narrow bill instead of insisting on tying it to some broader objective. As Politico reports, Trump might not go along at all:

“Although top White House officials support such a fix, one told POLITICO that he wasn’t sure the president would sign anything without getting concessions from Democrats. Indeed, a House GOP source said Trump was asking for wall money to be included in any standalone legislation keeping families together — a nonstarter for many lawmakers.”

If as some observers suspect, Trump and his top immigration adviser Stephen Miller exult in border chaos and think the prominence of the immigration issue is a good way to motivate the GOP base heading toward the midterms, then the odds of a border fix could go way down. But that would not eliminate the pressure on congressional Republicans to do something.

(3) The courts force a DACA crisis. The family-separation issue isn’t the only one where action in the federal judiciary could force immigration into the headlines and onto the congressional agenda. The long-simmering conservative legal challenge to Obama’s original DACA executive order — which created a protected category for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children — could reach at least temporary fruition as well, as Rachel Bade explains:

“A conservative-leaning federal court in Texas is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as early as mid-July, pushing the issue to the fore again.

“The case, brought by Texas and several other Republican-dominated southern states, could contradict a previous court’s decision that halted Trump’s move to end DACA. The result could be that Dreamers again face the risk of deportation unless the Supreme Court — or Congress — weighs in.”

Trump could again use the peril to Dreamers as leverage to demand his own shifting but politically explosive set of immigration policy goals. And the status of Dreamers as the most politically attractive subcategory of undocumented immigrants will again put vulnerable Republicans on the spot.

(4) Trump threatens a government shutdown. Even if Republicans avoid a crisis forced by public opinion or the courts, their own president is perfectly capable of generating one all by himself, and has already threatened to do so. In March and again in April, the president publicly suggested killing must-pass appropriations legislation at the end of September (when the omnibus appropriations measure he grudgingly signed runs out) if he doesn’t get full funding for his border wall. And it apparently came up again in June during a private meeting on spending plans, as Burgess Everett reported:

“Trump fumed at senators and his own staff about the $1.6 billion the Senate is planning to send him this fall, according to two people familiar with the meeting. Trump wants the full $25 billion upfront and doesn’t understand why Congress is going to supply him funds in a piecemeal fashion — even though that’s how the spending process typically works….

“The president said at the meeting that if Congress doesn’t give him the resources he needs for border security, he will shut down the government in September, according to one of the people familiar with the meeting. He did not give a specific number, but has been fixated on getting the $25 billion in a lump sum.”

Even if the Trump threat comes and goes with his moods or negotiating strategy, it could place immigration policy back on the front burner in Washington whether or not other Republicans want it there. And it’s not just Trump, of course, who has tunnel vision about immigration: Breitbart News, many conservative activists, and a sizable chunk of the party’s electoral “base” won’t be happy until deportations soar.

So congressional Republicans can run from the immigration issue, but they sure can’t hide.

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