Does the GOP even have an immigration plan? Not according to this bill

Note to GOP: Trying to spike Obama's immigration directives is not reform

When President Obama issued his immigration directives in November, he threw down a gauntlet to Congress: Trump me, he said, by passing immigration reform and making my directives unnecessary.

Some members of Congress are trying to act, but their focus isn’t on reforming immigration. Rather, they want to roll back the president’s directives -- essentially legislating the pre-directive status quo, which isn’t a fix for anything -- and they want to do it by hijacking the budget bill for the Department of Homeland Security, effectively holding border and national security hostage to their snit over Obama’s executive actions.

How the congressional Republican leadership handles this could give us a good sense of whether the current Congress will be an improvement over the last one, or whether the inertia of political incompetence will prove too strong. 

As our colleague Lisa Mascaro reported, the issue will be a test of GOP unity. There are some conservatives who see the need to reform the system (Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, has been urging fellow Republicans to move on it). But the near-horizon is filled with political payback measures, not thought-out resolutions to a significant national problem.

Some of the measures being added to the funding bill would overrule Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, allowing hundreds of thousands of people brought here as children to avoid deportation. In November, Obama ordered immigration officials to defer actions on those here illegally who are parents of a citizen or those with legal permanent status, as well as some other smaller categories. Those directives also are targeted.

Though the rider-heavy bill would likely pass in the House, where tea party conservatives hold inordinate sway over the broader GOP delegation, it seems unlikely there would be enough votes in the Senate to stop a Democratic filibuster. Even if the Republicans would clear that hurdle, Obama has already promised a veto, and the GOP doesn’t have enough votes to override it.

So why go through this game of political charades? And why now?

Some Beltway watchers believe that House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want to move the bill with the anti-directive measures as early as they can, let it die its predicted death, and then get back to forging a passable appropriation bill for the Department of Homeland Security before current funding runs out at the end of February. (How much effect that really would have is unclear -- most of the department's employees are considered essential federal personnel and would work anyway.)

That way Republican leaders can claim they tried to counter Obama's directives, assuage the tea partiers for whom this is a red-meat issue and steer the legislative agenda back to measures that stand a better chance of avoiding a Democratic filibuster in the Senate and getting signed by Obama. Tilting at that windmill now gives them time to fail and come back with a fresh Homeland Security funding bill without the riders; they also duck the political backlash of shuttering a key national security agency during a period of increased fears over terror attacks.

Meanwhile, there’s some bipartisan movement in the Senate to chip off a bit of immigration reform: Additional visas for tech workers, something business-friendly Democrats and Republicans support (whether the tea partiers would back it is less clear).

Business likes it, arguing that tech firms have trouble finding qualified job candidates; labor leaders, among others, say there’s no shortage and that the industry wants the visas to drive down wages. Given the tech sector’s history of wage and hiring collusion, the labor argument is more persuasive.

But in the end, a sweetheart carve-out for tech firms and inaction on the rest of the Gordian knot that is immigration reform leaves us right where we are -- a place where most Americans don’t want to be, with immigration reform still a dream and Washington still incapable of finding a political center. 

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

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