Why President Obama’s Immigration Address Is A Game Changer

Bill Scher

The news out of yesterday’s address on immigration reform from President Obama is he got heckled. The merits of the heckler’s case for an executive order to stop deportations is thin. And an attack Obama misses the target; Speaker John Boehner is the hold-up. Nevertheless, anything that keeps immigration in the news helps maintain a steady drumbeat for action and makes it harder for Boehner to bury the issue.

But a heckler is a one-day story, not enough by itself to dislodge the bill.

And what that story obscured was this consequential passage in Obama’s speech:

The good news is, just this past week Speaker Boehner said that he is “hopeful we can make progress” on immigration reform. And that is good news. I believe the Speaker is sincere. I think he genuinely wants to get it done. And that’s something we should be thankful for this week. And I think there are a number of other House Republicans who also want to get this done. Some of them are hesitant to do it in one big bill, like the Senate did. That’s okay. They can — it’s Thanksgiving; we can carve that bird into multiple pieces … But as long as all the pieces get done — soon — and we actually deliver on the core values we’ve been talking about for so long, I think everybody is fine with it. They’re not worried about the procedures. They just want the result.

Obama did two keys things in that passage:

1. Praised Boehner

Some House Republicans have been using as an excuse for inaction that claim that they can’t work with Obama because, in the words of one congressman, “he’s trying to destroy the Republican Party. And I think that anything that we do right now with this president on immigration will be with that same goal in mind, which is to destroy the Republican Party and not get good policies.”

But now Obama is throwing Republicans a political lifeline, assuring immigration advocates that GOP leaders have their heart in the right place.

Other activists are pressuring House Republicans through more confrontational means — fasting on the National Mall, ambushing Boehner at his favorite breakfast spot — and giving Republicans a taste of what might happen if they kill the bill. That’s necessary to make the risk of inaction worse than the risk of action.

But Republicans also need cover to be able to claim they acted on immigration out of their own principles and not out of crass, defensive politics. Obama is giving that cover to them, while letting others play bad cop.

2. Accepted piecemeal procedure

Another House Republican excuse has been they don’t want to pass a “comprehensive” bill like the Senate version, but prefer “piecemeal” bills — creating a Bizzaro universe where “piecemeal” is a more positive word than “comprehensive.”

While the excuse is couched as a dig against “big government,” it’s really cover to avoid admitting they don’t want to deal with the part of the Senate bill that creates a pathway to citizenship for currently undocumented immigrants.

Obama is saying that need not be excuse. Piecemeal is fine, “as long as all the pieces get done — soon.”

This leaves a lot of room for potential snags. If Congress votes on the different components separately, might the border security bills pass while the citizenship bill fails, and if so, what happens then? What does Obama’s “soon” mean? What sequence do the bills get voted on? Does Obama have to sign border security bills before the House will take up a citizenship bill? Can tacit agreements can be made in private that will hold up on the floor?

But that’s a problem for the future. For now, what’s important is Obama just opened the door for Boehner to proceed the way Boehner says he prefers: piece by piece.

Since Boehner has just gotten his way, it’s impossible for him to refuse any floor votes without shouldering all the blame for the demise of reform.

Yes, there will be no immigration votes this year. But all that means is there will be no immigration votes next month.

What Obama’s speech means is there almost surely will be immigration votes next year. And then things will get interesting.

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