Crowded Legislative Agenda Prompts Immigration Reform Concerns

In the ongoing soap opera that comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) has become, CIR has been pronounced dead – or near death – so many times that the plot line is getting a bit stale. Rumors of the untimely demise of immigration reform, comprehensive or otherwise, are swirling around in Washington with an intensity suggesting that this time might just be the end.

Why? Though there was hope that the House of Representatives would take up CIR legislation – even in a scattershot, fragmented way – when they returned from the August recess, events seem to have overtaken those aspirations. Most commentators point to the mismatch between a crowded legislative agenda and the time available to deal with a number of complex and highly controversial issues. [See Immigration Reform Falls to the Back of the Line, by Michael D. Shear and Julia Preston, New York Times, 08.Sep.2013, and Will Congress Consider Immigration Reform?, by Hari Sreenivasan and Christina Bellantoni, PBS Newshour, 08.Sep.2013.]

As Christina Bellantoni pointed out on the PBS Newshour, Congress has only nine working days to hammer out a budget deal with the President, to avoid a government shutdown. The crisis in Syria has taken up still more time and attention – already a scarce commodity in Washington – and several GOP members are still actively campaigning to shut down Obamacare before it takes effect at the beginning of the new fiscal year, just days away. The conventional wisdom is that much of the momentum behind the Senate CIR bill will have been spent by the time these contentious matters are dealt with, and getting it rolling again could be a challenge.

The New York Times suggests that the passage of time has made CIR less urgent for the House GOP members: “Republican angst about losing Hispanic voters in the 2012 presidential campaign have faded.” The Times cautions that if CIR is stopped in its tracks, it’s likely to remain stuck there for quite some time:

“If the House does not take up the immigration issue until 2014, members will face the prospect of voting on a highly contentious issue in the middle of a Congressional election year. Republican primaries will begin in the spring, and many lawmakers may be reluctant to overhaul the immigration system just before facing their conservative constituents. If Congress does not complete action early next year, Congressional aides said, the issue could be delayed until after the November elections.”

In which case, CIR would be back to square one. Given the challenges that some moderate Republicans are facing from their party’s right flank, Congress might lose some key GOP supporters of CIR, either through electoral defeat or a skin-of-the-teeth victory that makes them less willing to brook bipartisan compromise.

That being said, until Congress adjourns sine die at the end of the current session, it seems premature to rule out the possibility that the House will take up immigration reform legislation in some form. Congress is nothing if not unpredictable, and stranger things have happened in the past – and as Yankee baseball great, Yogi Berra, famously said: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over!”

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