Tim Huelskamp put in short order the House Republican thinking on comprehensive immigration reform. The representative from Kansas told reporters on Wednesday: “We care what people back home say, not what some former president says.” That former president is George W. Bush, who spoke earlier in the day at a naturalization ceremony near Dallas, urging a “positive resolution” to the congressional debate, lawmakers keeping in mind “a benevolent spirit” and “the contributions immigrants make to our country.”
Bush tried seven years ago to engineer an overhaul of the immigration system, blending stronger border enforcement with a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. The effort collapsed due to resistance from the far right. That is the problem today. When Huelskamp and others talk about “people back home,” they are referring to districts often gerrymandered and safe for conservative candidates. A Huelskamp is more likely to worry about a Republican challenger in the primary than a contest later against a Democrat.
On Wednesday, House Republicans discussed how their caucus should respond to the bipartisan immigration bill approved by the Senate. They sent a defiant message. They pledged to pursue a “step by step approach,” advancing separate bills, starting with beefed-up border security. In their statement, they didn’t mention dealing, even eventually, with the illegal immigrants already here.
The criticism frequently has been made that as a caucus House Republicans are more interested in posturing than actual governing. Here is a clear example. If House Republicans proceed in a piecemeal fashion, the effort faces dim prospects in the Senate, where compromise is necessary and has been achieved, Republicans and Democrats bridging differences to move forward.
Put another way, Congress puts off action, the country still stuck with a broken and outmoded immigration system, House Republicans in position to continue their harsh criticism.
Who fears such an outcome? Those Republicans in the Senate who helped craft the immigration compromise and many others involved nationally in the party. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has warned about the party facing a “demographic death spiral.” President Obama captured 70 percent of the growing Latino vote. That share isn’t likely to shrink if House Republicans block comprehensive immigration reform, leaving the party’s next presidential candidate at a disadvantage.
In their statement, House Republicans argued almost comically that they fear “a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill,” suggesting the president would have room to ignore the border security provisions. The Senate makes available roughly $30 billion for border enforcement, a huge, and arguably wasteful, sum in view of what the country already has devoted to border protection. That was the price of compromise, Republicans negotiators getting what they needed to support the pathway to citizenship. The result is messy and flawed. It also reflects how we actually address problems.