By Alexander Bolton - 06/13/13 09:00 AM EDT
Democrats say immigration reform will be a campaign issue in 2014 if Republicans block an effort to create a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. [WATCH VIDEO]
Immigration reform is President Obama’s top domestic initiative, and signing it into law would give him a significant second-term accomplishment, which eluded his predecessor, former President George W. Bush.
Failure would hand the president a major disappointment, but the silver lining is that it would give Democrats a powerful issue to wield in 2014 and 2016.
“I think it would be,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), when asked if Democrats would make immigration reform a campaign issue if legislation stalls on Capitol Hill.
Bennet, a member of the upper chamber’s Gang of Eight, which drafted the core of the 1,000-plus page bill, quickly added that he hoped Republicans would not stymie the proposed path to citizenship.
“I don’t anticipate that they’re going to block immigration reform. Let’s hope that they don’t,” he said after a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.
Members of the gang have downplayed talk of partisan politics to avoid souring the bipartisan atmosphere that has given the bill strong political momentum. But frustrations have mounted as Republicans continue to push for changes to the bill.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has called for “major changes,” and described a proposal sponsored by Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) to strengthen the border security provisions as the “key amendment” for attracting more GOP support.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has panned Cornyn’s amendment as a “poison pill” that would kill the legislation, and Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a member of the Gang of Eight and the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, spoke out against it on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Thirty Senate Republicans voted Tuesday to begin debate. Reid and the Gang of Eight are confident they can secure 60 votes for the legislation, but they worry it could stall because of opposition from House Republicans.
“I’m very confident of getting to 60, but we need more than 60. We can pass this out with 60, 61, 62 but that doesn’t do us much good in the House, so we’re still on the hunt for votes,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a Gang of Eight member.
Republicans have repeatedly asserted that the Senate immigration bill will have to be made more appealing to conservatives and has no chance of passing the House in its current form.
Democrats are beginning to push back against the GOP leverage game by arguing they will suffer political consequences if they kill immigration reform by holding out for changes that could delay the path to citizenship for years.
“Voting against this bill is a political disaster for the Republican Party,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist working with the Campaign for an Accountable, Moral and Balanced Immigration Overhaul. “They need to be reminded there are sound policy reasons to vote for it but also significant political reasons as well.”
Manley noted that more Republicans are concerned about facing conservative primary challenges than general election opponents.
Few Senate Republican incumbents are at risk in 2014. The most vulnerable could be McConnell, who has amassed more than $8 million in his reelection account.
“I am confident in the light of the changing demographics of the country, it would have huge political consequences in the presidential election and the congressional elections after that,” Manley said.
Democratic strategists don’t think they have much chance of knocking off Cornyn next year but they think Texas could become a battleground in 2018 or 2020. Hispanics are estimated to outnumber whites in Texas within a decade.
A senior Senate Democratic aide said Senate Republicans would be held to account even if House Republicans ultimately quash immigration reform.
“It would be an issue for the GOP in general,” said the aide, who noted the House vote earlier this month to defund the Obama administration’s policy of deferring the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to the county as children.
Republicans plan to make the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which Democratic lawmakers worry could turn into a “train wreck,” a major issue in 2014.
Democrats do not yet have an obvious big issue to run on. The GOP blocked gun control legislation earlier this year but it’s viewed as a problematic political issue for Democrats, as gun rights are popular in rural swing states and districts that will determine the Senate and House majorities.
A strategist for a Democratic super-PAC said defeat of immigration reform would make centrist-leaning House Republicans vulnerable to attack, citing Reps. Rodney Davis (Ill.), Gary Miller (Calif.), Steve Southerland (Fla.) and Mike Coffman (Colo.).
The strategist predicted the party would run TV ads on immigration reform in 2014 if the legislative effort fails.