GOP comfortable ignoring Obama pleas for vote on immigration bill

Greg Nash

For President Obama and advocates hoping for a House vote on immigration reform this year, the reality is simple: Fat chance.

Since the shutdown, Obama has repeatedly sought to turn the nation’s focus to immigration reform and pressure Republicans to take up the Senate’s bill, or something similar.

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But there are no signs that Republicans are feeling any pressure.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has repeatedly ruled out taking up the comprehensive Senate bill, and senior Republicans say it is unlikely that the party, bruised from its internal battle over the government shutdown, would pivot quickly to an issue that has long rankled conservatives.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a leadership ally, told reporters Wednesday there is virtually no chance the party would take up immigration reform before the next round of budget and debt-ceiling fights are settled. While that could happen by December if a budget conference committee strikes an agreement, that fight is more likely to drag on well into 2014: The next deadline for lifting the debt ceiling, for example, is not until Feb. 7.

“I don’t even think we’ll get to that point until we get these other problems solved,” Cole said.

He said it was unrealistic to expect the House to be able to tackle what he called the “divisive and difficult issue” of immigration when it can barely handle the most basic task of keeping the government’s lights on.

“We’re not sure we can chew gum, let alone walk and chew gum, so let’s just chew gum for a while,” Cole said.

In a colloquy on the House floor, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) asked Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to outline the GOP's agenda between now and the end of 2013.

Cantor rattled off a handful of issues — finishing a farm bill, energy legislation, more efforts to go after ObamaCare — but immigration reform was notably absent.

When Hoyer asked Cantor directly on the House floor for an update on immigration efforts, the majority leader was similarly vague.

“There are plenty of bipartisan efforts underway and in discussion between members on both sides of the aisle to try and address what is broken about our immigration system,” Cantor said. “The committees are still working on this issue, and I expect us to move forward this year in trying to address reform and what is broken about our system.”

Immigration reform advocates in both parties have long set the end of the year as a soft deadline for enacting an overhaul because of the assumption that it would be impossible to pass such contentious legislation in an election year.

Aides say party leaders have not ruled out bringing up immigration reform in the next two months, but there is no current plan to do so.

The legislative calendar is also quite limited; because of holidays and recesses, the House is scheduled to be in session for just five weeks for the remainder of the year. 

In recent weeks, however, some advocates have held out hope that the issue would remain viable for the first few months of 2014, before the midterm congressional campaigns heat up.

Democrats and immigration reform activists have long vowed to punish Republicans in 2014 if they stymie reform efforts, and the issue is expected to play prominently in districts with a significant percentage of Hispanic voters next year.

With the shutdown having sent the GOP’s approval rating plummeting, Democrats have appealed to Republicans to use immigration reform as a chance to demonstrate to voters that the two parties can work together and that Congress can do more than simply careen from crisis to crisis.

“Rather than create problems, let’s prove to the American people that Washington can actually solve some problems,” Obama said Thursday in his latest effort to spur the issue on.

But Republicans largely dismiss that line of thinking and say the two-week shutdown damaged what little trust between the GOP and Obama there was at the outset.

“There is a sincere desire to get it done, but there is also very little goodwill after the president spent the last two months refusing to work with us,” a House GOP leadership aide said. “In that way, his approach in the fiscal fights was very short-sighted: It made his achieving his real priorities much more difficult.”