As impressive as it was to see the U.S. Senate approve 68-32 an immigration reform bill, and do so in the great (and seemingly forgotten) legislative tradition of both giving ground and finding common ground, the prospects for seeing a comprehensive immigration law pass remain depressingly remote.
The political considerations that generated substantial Republican support in the Senate simply do not exist in the House.
There is much not to like about the Senate bill. But it at least seeks to do something to address the question of what to do about the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States who journeyed here illegally or exceeded their authorized stays. Sending them all back to their nations of origin is not a reasonable option, but neither is having them continue to exist in the shadows, not fully integrated into the nation's economy, tax system and many other aspects of American society.
The legislation approved by the Senate would provide a relatively direct path to legal standing for those immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding people. The path to citizenship, on the other hand, would be overly arduous, taking 13 years. Yet this was the price of compromise and getting legislation passed.
Also overdone is a plan to bolster security along the nation's southern border. Yes, it makes sense to improve border control as part of an immigration bill because the nation does not want to encourage a new wave of illegal immigrants. But the plan to spend $40 billion over the next decade, build 700 miles of fence and add 20,000 Border Patrol officers is more akin to raising an army than boosting security. But as with the citizenship question, Republicans needed some "get-tough" cover before diving in politically and supporting the legislation.
What is remarkable, and challenging, about framing immigration reform legislation is the diverse political cooperation it requires. On the Democratic side the concern focused on guest worker programs for low-skill immigrants that labor sees as a threat to American jobs. A compromise with labor ties the number of such guest visas to economic indicators, providing fewer when times are harsh with a cap of 200,000 in the best of times.
Arguably no support for the immigration bill was more important than that of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., considered a a rising star in the party and a potential future presidential candidate. A child of immigrants, Sen. Rubio recognized the humanitarian reasons for getting something done on this issue. He also accepts the political reality that if the Republican Party continues to alienate Latino voters by remaining obstinate, the GOP will find it increasingly difficult to win presidential and many Senate elections.
Yet Sen. Rubio will pay a political price. In 2016 he could be running for Senate re-election or making a presidential bid, but in either case expect Republican challengers to use his immigration vote against him. The degree of animus within the party was captured by the comments of Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas.
"I don't think we're doing any damage to him," Rep. Huelskamp told reporters. "I think he's done damage to himself with the amnesty bill."
There you have it, the a-word. For many conservatives any legislation that provides undocumented residents with some path to become legal and integrated members of society is unacceptable "amnesty." Such thinking killed a reasonable immigration reform bill proposed by a Republican president, George W. Bush, and it is why the prospects of approval in the Republican-controlled House appear so dim.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, could probably cobble together enough Republican votes to join the minority Democrats and pass a bill in the House, but he has said he will not seek a vote unless he has the support of a majority of House Republicans, and it won't be on the Senate bill, he said. "We're going to do our own bill."
Most likely, there will be no bill, or at least no bill offering true reform. Many House Republicans, serving safely gerrymandered districts, have far more to fear from Republican primaries than general elections and so don't want to look soft on immigration. In more than 70 percent of districts held by House Republicans, Hispanics make up 10 percent or less of the electorate.
We'd like to be optimistic, but we see no reason.