Pro-immigration reform Republicans say there's a better chance that Congress will produce an immigration overhaul if their party wins control of the upper chamber in November.
GOP lawmakers say that, with Republicans in charge of both chambers, leadership in the House would have a negotiating partner across the Capitol they could trust.
“With the caveat that it's a very difficult issue, I think the likelihood is better if Republicans take the Senate,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a leading GOP voice for immigration reform.
“I think there would certainly be greater trust between the House and Senate in agreeing on something,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who like Diaz-Balart, supports providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “This is an American issue. So, I expect this party to come together on it. And I'm going to continue driving it.”
Another factor for Republicans is the 2016 election.
Hispanics fled the GOP in the last two presidential cycles, and Republicans have openly worried that the immigration debate is turning off Hispanics to their party. The next two years would be the last chance for the GOP to take action on immigration before the party’s next presidential nominee faces voters.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made an offhand remark during a speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute about the importance of moving immigration reform.
“Our legal system is broken, our border isn’t secure, and we’ve got the problem of those who are here without documents," Boehner said. “It needs to be fixed. We’re a nation of immigrants. The sooner we do it, the better off the country would be.”
To be sure, the odds are stacked against comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for workers in the U.S. illegally — something Obama and congressional Democrats demand but that conservatives deride as “amnesty” for people who broke the law.
The immigration bill approved by the Senate last year included language that would illegal immigrants to apply for lawful permanent residency once a number of border security enforcement measures are in place. Those measures include completing 700 miles of fencing, hiring nearly 40,000 full-time Border Patrol agents and certifying that employers are verifying workers' legal status.
The bill would allow qualified immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to apply for a renewable provisional immigrant status lasting for six years in the meantime, and they could eventually apply for a green card.
Obama is expected to announce executive actions on immigration after the election, possibly in December, that could further poison the well between the White House and congressional Republicans, making it that much more difficult to move a bill.
Presidential politics within the GOP will also make it trickier to navigate the controversial issue. Several senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that negotiated the Senate immigration package, are eyeing their own runs for the White House.
Democrats, such as Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who met privately for months with Diaz-Balart and other lawmakers in a futile effort to reach an immigration deal in the House, say they are skeptical anything will be done in the next two years.
“Congressman Gutiérrez finds it unlikely that the 114th Congress will enact anything resembling serious immigration reform and that overcoming Republican opposition to meaningful border enforcement, legal immigration, and a reduction in the population of people living here illegally is unlikely in the next couple of years,” said Gutiérrez spokesman Douglas Rivlin.
“He is open to working across party lines as he has always been, but chances are that real immigration reform from the Republican side will have to wait until after they lose the White House race again in 2016, and their position on immigration all but guarantees that result,” Rivlin added.
Critics of the Senate immigration bill are also gearing up for action, but say efforts should focus on border security.
Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsThe new Washington elite schmoozes over lunch Justice requires higher standard than Sessions Cory Booker: It's now time to fight MORE (R-Ala.), one of Washington’s most vocal critics of the Senate bill, said that by securing the border first, Congress could gain public support for handling workers living in the U.S. illegally like enforcing visa expiration dates.
“I think the Republican Party is the only party at this point that's defending the legitimate interest of the American working person,” Sessions said. “I think if Republicans gain support in this election, that it'd be time to get some of those things done. It's through that kind of process that you begin to have enough credibility to ask the American people for more comprehensive reform.”
Diaz-Balart suggested it could be possible to move a bill that stopped short of offering citizenship, but allowed illegal immigrants to come forward and stay in the United States.
“I think there's strong conservative support for having people come forward, register, pay taxes, play by the rules, and then have a way to earn your way to get right with the law with no additional pathways to citizenship,” Diaz-Balart said.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another “Gang of Eight” member, predicted that any movement on immigration in a GOP-controlled Congress would not be the kind of comprehensive package approved by the Senate.
“I think it'll likely be structured differently. More piecemeal, like the House would like to have, and sequenced in a way so that we can get it all done,” Flake said.
Republicans are unlikely to win more than a slim Senate majority at the most and could not pass an immigration bill on their own. Therefore, it would need at least some Democratic support.
“Just like we have to recognize the fact Republicans demand border and interior security, Democrats demand that you deal with the folks that are here,” Diaz-Balart said. “The reality is it's going to require some Democratic votes.”
Diaz-Balart warned that there would be a narrow window for Republicans to act in the next Congress before 2016 presidential politics freeze substantive legislative activity on Capitol Hill. By then, neither party would want the other to get credit for acting on a major issue.
“The pressure from all sides becomes even greater,” Diaz-Balart said. But, he noted, “There's never an easy time to do complicated, controversial things.”