The day before our nation’s birthday, Rep. Denny Heck stopped by our editorial board in a less optimistic mood about comprehensive immigration reform than when he visited us 90 days ago. Back then, an optimistic new congressman identified immigration as an issue that would achieve bipartisan support.
And it did, in the U.S. Senate.
That body passed the most sweeping immigration law changes in a quarter-century with a two-thirds majority that included 14 Republicans. The bill — originally drafted by a group of Republicans and Democrats known as the “Gang of Eight” — struck a masterful balance of trackable workplace enforcement, improved border security and an earned pathway to legal status, including citizenship.
Heck has good reason to be less optimistic today. Even before the Senate voted on the immigration bill, House Speaker John Boehner pronounced it dead on arrival. Heck agrees. He doubts Boehner could muster a majority within his own 234 GOP members.
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Heck now regards immigration reform as the metric by which voters will evaluate this Congress.
Why would House Republicans turn their backs on the fastest-growing national demographic? Mitt Romney lost the White House because he received only 27 percent of the Latino vote. National polls show a majority of Americans support immigration reform.
A report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected the Senate’s reform bill would reduce federal deficits by $200 billion over 10 years, and continue saving money into the future. The savings come even after factoring in health care and welfare costs. What’s not to like about that for smaller government advocates?
For an explanation, Heck points to the recently defeated farm bill. He says the philosophical gap is growing between GOP House leadership and the tea party wing, for whom compromise is heretical. Tea party conservatives want a taller border fence and regard any pathway to legalization as amnesty – a dirty word.
If Heck is right, and the national pundits say he is, immigration reform will become just another piece of roadkill by a Congress going nowhere. By virtue of having passed only 13 bills into law in six months, the 113th Congress has distinguished itself as the least productive in modern history.
Still, Heck has not given up hope. Nor should he. The House will begin serious debate on immigration reform later this month, so a workable reform bill remains possible.
With Heck working across the aisle, perhaps the House can come together on smart immigration reform good for the GOP and the nation, and thus acquit itself.