What does the fiscal fight mean for immigration reform?

Crucial question: After the fiscal fight, is this guy's job any safer? (Creative Commons/davidsilver)

Crucial question: After the fiscal fight, is this guy’s job any safer? (Creative Commons/davidsilver)

Further fiscal crisis has now been postponed long enough for people to pay attention to other issues in front of Congress. So, how has this whole episode has affected the possibilities for immigration reform?

I find it difficult to get into the internal psychology of the Republican Party, and predicting things is a dangerous game anyway. But here is the framework I think we should use to think about it:

The central problem with getting immigration reform passed is the same as before. There are enough votes in the House to pass the bill the Senate passed already in June, but it would have to move with near-unanimous support from Democrats and the votes of only a modest number of Republicans. So, the House leadership is loath to move it to the floor against the wishes of most of their caucus. At the same time, it’s basically impossible to imagine a bill that a majority of Republicans would vote for that would also attract the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Obama.

The problem remains the same. But has the near-total Republican loss in the most recent episode the fiscal fight — driven by Republican hard-liners — made the resolution of this impasse any more likely?

Three aspects of this question that seem important to me:

Has bending the Hastert Rule on the fiscal fight made it more malleable in the future, or has the bruising experience made far-right Republicans unwilling to allow it to be bent again? The success of immigration reform still depends on the willingness of (establishment) Republican leaders in the House to move a bill to the floor despite the near-certainty that a majority of their caucus will vote against it. Are they more likely to do this on immigration now than they were in the summer? The crisis-ending deal still got “no” votes from most House Republicans, but after weeks of bleeding, even the dissenters eventually assented to their leadership taking it to the floor anyway. So, Republican leaders ended the standoff while minimizing their risks of falling victim to a coup; they “went against” most of their caucus, but not really. Could the same thing happen with immigration, especially without the context of a crisis-producing deadline? Now that the far-right faction of the party has conceded defeat until next year on fiscal matters, are they more, less, or roughly equally likely to put up a strong fight on immigration reform, with all the attendant roadblocks?

Where (and who) are the “reasonable” Republicans? Will “reasonable” Republicans stand up and wrest control of their party (especially in the House) from the “unreasonable” Republicans? Many hope that the political blows Republicans have suffered in the past few weeks will bring forth the day of reckoning for a party that has become unsustainably radical and reactionary. Some have noted with frustration in the past few weeks that the “Tea Party” faction is actually quite small. But it seems to me that when we are talking about “reasonable” Republicans who don’t really want to shut down the government or cause needless default, we are talking about a different group than the moderate Republicans who would actually vote for the Senate immigration bill or, more broadly, support immigration reform at all. There are plenty of “reasonable” Republicans who are still probably far too conservative to get behind immigration reform (though some may vote no for self-protection reasons yet still hope it passes). In any case, convincing a party to offer a more moderate face to voters is often a years-long process, and answering this question requires looking into a crystal ball to see when bog-standard conservative Republicans will cease to fear being challenged in primaries from their right.

How do Republicans see their problem? Establishment Republicans have for a while spoken about their party’s poor approval ratings and branding problems. Other Republicans disagree with the establishment’s perspective on the problem, arguing that they wouldn’t have problems if they were “really” conservative. Regardless, the post-2012 conception of this problem was that Republicans were attracting a dwindling number of white voters, so they needed to reach out to growing demographic groups. Rehabilitating their image on immigration by compromising on a reform bill is supposed to be a first step in doing so. This analysis has provided almost all of the Republicans’ political rationale for cooperating with Democrats on advancing this group of policy goals. But now, post-2013-fiscal-showdown, what is the Republicans’ self-perception of their problem? Does their stance on immigration still play such a large part, or is their problem much broader and fundamentally internal? The first step to getting sufficient Republican support on immigration reform is to capture the focus of the fraction of the Republican Party that wants to rebrand itself, and train that focus on immigration reform as a policy goal. Where is that group focusing its attention now?

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