Be united on border security

House Republicans would like to vote for an immigration reform approach that hews to the amendment introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), which would require that the border be sealed, with 90 percent of illegal immigration prevented, before any legalization or amnesty process could begin for illegal immigrants already here. Border security legislation emerging from the House Judiciary Committee will likely satisfy their concerns. Although it is not likely to prescribe how to cut illegal immigration, leaving that to the administration to figure out, it will tie further progress on reform to the successful completion of the border security mission.

OK, say House Republicans, what happens if we pass this border security bill and it goes into the conference committee alongside the Senate bill that does not predicate legalization on actual progress on the border? They worry that the “compromise” that comes out of committee will closely parallel the Senate bill and leave border security far behind in the dust.

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Looming in the background is their legitimate fear that such a bill would easily pass the House with solid Democratic support and a smattering of Republicans, leaving them to vote against it in frustration and impotence.

But would the conference committee play out that way?

It depends on how its work is perceived. If the Senate Democrats push for immigration reform and the House Republicans say they want border security first, the Republicans will win that debate. Latinos favor border security. A recent poll by John McLaughlin showed 57 percent of U.S. Latino voters back a bill along the lines suggested by Cornyn. And Anglos and blacks in the Democratic House districts will fail to understand why their congressmen are giving priority to amnesty over border security.

It’s a bit like the confrontation between then-President Clinton and the Gingrich-led Republican Congress in 1995-1996. In that battle, as long as the Gingrich budget cuts were the only path to a balanced budget, voters accepted their necessity and agreed to them. But when Clinton laid out a path to a balanced budget that did not include the more severe of the Gingrich cuts, voters happily backed Clinton and turned against the Republican cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.

Now, if the only path to immigration reform and legalization of those already in the United States is the Democratic approach, voters will accept it even without real guarantees of border security. But if the Republicans provide a way to achieve both reform and border security, voters will tilt their way.

In the polarized world of Washington, one is either for reform-first or border-security-first. But voters want them both. And the Republican approach offers that.

The Democrats will, of course, argue that the Senate bill does too, but voters will side with the Republicans when they point out that the Obama administration, having failed to seal the border over the past five years, is not likely to do it now unless it is forced to do it in order to begin legalization.

Republicans still have the majority in the House. If Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gives his majority appropriate assurances that he will oppose any compromise that does not put border security first, he will assuage conservative concerns and will probably be able to get an almost unanimous Republican vote around the Cornyn approach. After all, we have to realize that if Boehner is forced to go to Democrats for votes, they will weaken the bill, costing additional Republican votes until we end up with the Senate bill.

If Boehner can keep his caucus united and immune to the seductions of the Senate bill, nobody need fear a conference committee. If the committee were to deadlock over border security, Democrats would be perceived as refusing to pass tough border legislation even if it means gutting immigration reform. Neither their Latino nor their other voters will be pleased.

Morris, a former adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Clinton, is the author of 16 books, including his latest, Screwed and Here Come the Black Helicopters. To get all of his and Eileen McGann’s columns for free by email, go to dickmorris.com.