John McCain recently faced constituents' anger over the issue. | AP Photo
The push for immigration reform on Captiol Hill has been in overdrive thus far in 2013, but last week’s recess serves as a reminder — if one was needed — that the issue is far from settled.
On the face of things, there’s plenty of momentum in Congress: The Senate Gang of Eight hopes to have a bill by mid-March; labor and business groups agreed on basic principles for low-skill workers; and a series of congressional hearings on the topic already have begun in earnest.
But momentum can change quickly, and last week saw signs of roadblocks for immigration legislation.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was part of the failed 2007 immigration reform effort and is taking a lead role in the Senate bill this year, faced angry constituents at a series of town halls in his home state.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he does not support an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Arizona’s four Republican congressmen sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner voicing opposition to the Senate plan, another indication that eventual legislation will be a tough sell in the GOP-controlled House.
And a draft of President Barack Obama’s own immigration bill leaked to USA Today sparked the ire of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose work on the Senate bill will be key to wooing conservative support. Rubio called the president’s plan “dead on arrival” in Congress.
In 2007, immense outside pressure, angry town halls and warring interests killed a comprehensive immigration reform package. McCain got a taste of the outside response last week back home in Arizona.
In a town hall meeting in a Phoenix suburb, McCain faced off with a constituent who said Congress should “cut off [immigrants’] welfare and stuff, and they’ll go back.” He added that McCain had broken a promise to help “build the dang fence.”
Another said the only thing that stops immigrants from crossing the border, “and it’s too damn bad, but is a gun.”
McCain seemed unfazed by the response and called one of the residents a “jerk.”
“People are involved, engaged and lots of feisty questions and a lot of back and forth, and that’s what town hall meetings are supposed to be about, as long as they’re respectful,” McCain told an Arizona ABC affiliate.
But the coverage of the meeting is likely to raise some eyebrows among GOP-ers who are being cautious about endorsing immigration reform just yet, many of whom still freshly remember the backlash at home from 2007.
A former Bush administration official who worked closely on the 2007 effort said last week that the key to getting a bill passed is getting legislation to the floor quickly so senators don’t “lose their nerve.”
“One of the lessons I took away from this was the longer there is between the time you unveil the proposal and the time you vote on the proposal, the more likely it is it will not make it all the way through the passage,” the official told reporters in the Capitol. “Simply because when you have recesses, and members go home, and they have to confront angry constituents, even if it’s a small number of angry constituents, that begins to shake their confidence.”
“Once you’ve got this thing baked, you’ve got to get it out of the oven and into the refrigerator and start eating it pretty quickly,” the official added. “If you let it sit on the table, I’m going to beat this metaphor to death, but the ants will start eating the cake.”
Some opponents to the Senate immigration proposal say the McCain town hall was a preview of things to come.
“Public attitudes really haven’t changed that much, and the public understands the political class is lying to them about amnesty,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “This anger is not misplaced; once there is a bill it will get worse. [McCain’s town hall] was a taste of what a lot of politicians are going to face.”
The senators in the working group have agreed that their legislation will go through regular committee order, allowing concerns to be addressed. The McCain town hall, or any initially negative response to their work, isn’t slowing them down or fraying nerves.
“We always knew this was going to be a challenging process and that the details were going to matter a lot, but we feel good about the process so far,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant.
And advocates argue that the opposition to reform is weakening.
“Momentum for immigration reform is growing; organizations that usually sit at opposite sides of the spectrum are getting aligned; and anti-immigrant organizations are proving once again that their bark is worse than their bite,” reads one news release from America’s Voice, a group that supports comprehensive immigration reform. “On policy, full citizenship for undocumented immigrants is the mainstream position, while some House Republicans continue to stake out less-than positions that won’t help them win back Latino voters and won’t resolve the issues at stake.”
Even as House Republicans have expressed opposition to a pathway to citizenship, the House Judiciary Committee is holding two subcommittee hearings on immigration this week. A bipartisan House working group had hoped to introduce their immigration reform proposals around the time of the State of the Union. While they missed that deadline, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told The Hill they were making “incredible progress” on a bill.
Senators who faced angry residents during the last immigration debate said they believed the tone has changed.
“Five years ago, all hell broke loose,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told the Sandy Springs Chamber of Commerce. “This year, I thought phones would ring off the hook again. They really haven’t. I think everybody realizes we have a problem.”