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110th Congress Offers Best Chance for Immigration Reform

Before we discuss immigration, a couple of points of clarification in the ongoing dialogue about the responsibilities of the two parties as we struggle to restore the regular order and bring back an open and deliberative legislative process. [IMGCAP(1)]

In my response two weeks ago to GOP Reps. Roy Blunt (Mo.), David Dreier (Calif.) and Lamar Smith (Texas), I erroneously referred to Rep. John Conyers’ (D-Mich.) hate crimes amendment to the Children’s Safety Act as a motion to recommit. It was a straightforward amendment, offered with one day’s notice for all to see and read in advance, and no one objected to its consideration. It was agreed to by voice vote.

And a point that only wonks could appreciate on motions to recommit, but one very important to the larger question about the parties and their role in the House: The House Rules Committee’s description of motions to recommit notes that there are two varieties — the motion to recommit without instructions, which is a direct attempt to kill the bill without a vote on its final passage, and the motion to recommit with instructions, an attempt by the minority party to amend a bill or offer a substitute. The Rules Committee notes: “Usually the instruction is for the committee ‘to report the bill back to the House forthwith with the following amendment.’ … If the bill is recommitted with such ‘forthwith’ instructions, the bill is immediately reported back to the House on the spot with the amendment, the amendment is voted on, and the House proceeds to final passage of the bill. The bill does not disappear into some legislative limbo.”

The Smith motion to recommit with instructions to the D.C. voting bill did not use the term “forthwith.” It substituted the term “promptly.” That meant that the bill would disappear into some legislative limbo and not be immediately dealt with by the House. The language change was clever, in a subversive way, and reflected the reality that Smith and his leadership wanted to kill the bill without doing so directly.

At a conference on civility on Monday co-sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a plea to turn our rancorous dialogue into a genuine debate on the issues. I agree — but this kind of backdoor motion is not the way to achieve that goal. Make the motions to recommit with instructions straightforward, representing the alternative visions of the minority party. As for the majority Democrats: It is past time to begin to create regular opportunities for full, robust and meaningful debate on the House floor.

On to substance. The nation has crying needs in many policy areas, from health to energy and the environment, that should be dealt with in the 110th Congress. At the top of the need list, though, is immigration. From porous borders to the 11 million or 12 million undocumented workers in the country, some for decades, to the country’s clear need for skilled and unskilled labor, we have serious issues that have festered for way too long. We have a golden opportunity under divided government to craft a bipartisan solution — a president who cares deeply about the issue and wants a comprehensive and balanced approach, and a majority party in Congress that generally shares his predilections. On these fronts, immigration is reminiscent of welfare reform in 1996. But the odds of adopting any comprehensive plan are much slimmer than they should be. If we fail in this Congress, it is much less likely in the next that we will have conditions anywhere near as favorable.

One culprit is the distorting impact of the presidential nominating process. On the Republican side, it is giving outsized leverage to harsh and uncompromising nativist forces, which already have caused candidates, such as Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), to temper their previous support for a President Bush-type approach. Another is the political weakness of the president, which is giving a lot of Congressional Republicans the excuse to respond to their own nativist bases and spurn Bush’s efforts. A third is the overall poisonous atmosphere in Congress, exacerbated by the overweening focus on Iraq, the most divisive of issues.

Democratic leaders in Congress, wary of working out a compromise with the White House and not finding the votes to pass it — and then having their vulnerable Members hit with harsh anti-immigrant attack ads — have demanded that the president come up with at least 70 Republican votes in the House for a package before they will bring it to a vote. That prospect is grim at the moment.

But all is not lost. There are many lawmakers who understand the gravity of the problem and the need to work together now. In the House, Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a courageous conservative who is a conscientious and principled legislator, is trying to find the golden mean with Democratic colleagues such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.). In the Senate, Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is showing great promise early in his Senate career for model, bipartisan approaches to important policy areas — taking cues from the real model for bipartisan legislating over recent decades, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — and working hard with both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans to find a workable compromise.

The issues involved here are very knotty. Even if a bill is crafted and enacted, it likely will have as many unintended consequences and policy failures as the last comprehensive immigration reform, which was a model of Congressional deliberation led by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.) and former Democratic Rep. Ron Mazzoli (Ky.). But it would be far worse to fail to grapple with this issue now or to fall back on a narrow, punitive measure to satisfy the nativists. Immigration is the acid test for this Congress to show it can deal with the nation’s problems.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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