On Immigration, House and Senate May Not Be As Far Apart As You Think

Bill Scher

The Senate immigration reform bill’s $46 billion “border surge” was supposed to bring more conservatives on board. While it helped get enough conservatives for a solid 68-vote majority in the Senate, many other conservatives are attacking it as wasteful government spending (as if tax cuts are the secret to preventing illegal immigration.)

The most recent attack comes from House Homeland Security Committee Chair Mike McCaul, who said yesterday on CBS’ Face The Nation that “What the Senate just passed was, again, a bunch of candy thrown down there.”

This colorful line grabbed some headlines. But dig a little deeper into his rhetoric and you see that this key House player is laying the groundwork for a final deal.

McCaul complained that the Senate bill amounts to “throwing forty-six billion dollars at a problem without any plan, without any strategy, without any definition of operation control.” He later noted that, “I passed a bipartisan bill out of my committee that will be, I think, the centerpiece of the enforcement and border security piece … [It was a] unanimously approved, completely bipartisan bill.” Then he said he expected his bill and some other piecemeal bills to clear the House, which “will put the House and Senate in a conference committee position … as early as late this year, maybe early next year.”

Does McCaul actually want to see the House and Senate come to terms? Sure looks like it. “My concern is the political backdrop could be that the White House would like to see this fail in the House, so that he can blame the House of Representatives for that and then try to take back the House of Representatives and then all bets are off on his agenda.”

In all of the above, what you don’t see is an outright rejection of the Senate bill. He’s just complaining the Senate money doesn’t come with enough of a plan.

Well, that’s what conference committees are for. It won’t be too hard to take a bipartisan House border security plan and marry it with bipartisan Senate border security money. The two concepts are not in conflict.

(The hard part will be deciding whether to use the McCaul plan’s goal of “apprehending 90% of illegal border crossers” as a hard “trigger” before allowing currently undocumented workers to be put on a path to citizenship, which the Senate ultimately decided against after much deliberation.)

Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra also sounded a hopeful note on CBS following the McCaul interview: “I think there’s a reason to feel comfortable with a lot of what Chairman McCaul just said because he did pass a bill that was a bipartisan vote on border security. He did talk about getting this done. Where we probably disagree is on trying to do this in a piecemeal way which won’t fix the entire machine. You got to fix the entire machine.”

This is a minor disagreement. The House may pass piecemeal bills over the summer, but any House-Senate conference committee will involve the Senate’s comprehensive bill. So long as McCaul speaks for a sufficient number of Republicans when he expresses fear that gridlock spells doom for their control of the House, a conference agreement could easily end with either a single bill, or several bills that get enacted on parallel tracks.

For example, an agreement could allow a border security bill to be voted on first in the House – letting conservatives say they secured the border first – with the understanding that if the House doesn’t pass the other elements of the package, nothing will pass the Senate.

While there is plenty of reason for hope, there’s no reason to be complacent. This is the same House that couldn’t pass a farm bill and preferred the crude sequester over budget negotiations. Republicans will need to feel the pressure to be sufficiently motivated to put their votes behind reform legislation.

But you can tell from the rhetoric, if you look closely enough, that top Republicans know there is a steep political price to pay if they fail.

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