Conventional political wisdom holds that an election year is not the time for controversial, complex issues. But this is not a conventional political climate. So reading the tea leaves on immigration is more difficult, even as the pressure ratchets up to "do something."
There are lots of elements in play. Neither party is terribly unified right now. The Democrats are fractured over issues like Obamacare and the Keystone XL pipeline. More murky are issues like energy/global warming/climate change, government regulations, jobs and the economy and foreign affairs. The far left of the party is disappointed not to have seen more progress on climate change, single payer (government) healthcare, an increased minimum wage and more union power.
Those Democrats who have to get elected in districts not populated with left and right coast hard-core liberals are desperate to hold their seats in the face of voter unhappiness with Obamacare, little progress on energy issues, a poor economy and scandals galore.
The Republican establishment has vacillated among trying to figure out how to work with the conservative Tea Party wing of their party, openly denigrating them and quietly trying to undermine them. They are wrestling with questions like how conservative is the mood of the country, how damaged are the Democrats and what are their key vulnerabilities?
As the more disciplined party, and the one with the most to lose, the Democrats have come out swinging in 2014 on issues they felt they could win or issues calculated to make the Republicans look bad. The minimum wage is one of the latter. Income inequality is a more complex concept but is really just another face of class warfare. Neither issue has gained much traction. SenateMajority Leader Harry Reid's increasingly over-the-top posturing could be seen as more strained attempts to sway low information voters to hold the line.
Against this backdrop, consider complications since the last election.
The administration's immigration credibility has been damaged by revelations regarding fudged deportation numbers and the release of convicted criminal illegals onto American streets. Only the most loyal Democrats believe our southern border is secure. Many don't care.
These issues of fudging numbers and mishandling criminal illegals are especially damaging given President Obama's demonstrated willingness to ignore or change statutory elements on his say-so and his prevarications regarding healthcare. It is difficult to pooh-pooh Republicans reluctant to deal with immigration law with such a President in office. Between his disregard for the law and Sen. Reid's willingness to do whatever it takes, they believe any carefully constructed attempt to give some kind of legal status short of citizenship to illegals already here could mean nothing as soon as the ink dries on the president's signature. No one can be confident anything would stay as legally passed by Congress. While conventional logic is that the House is still between the law and revisions, that doesn't hold while President Obama is in office. And beyond 2016, no one knows which party will control the White House or Congress.
Economic issues reveal fractures in both parties. Some big businesses are commonly portrayed by the media as wanting immigration labor. Some may – especially the ones needing highly educated, highly skilled immigrants – but it is a larger slice of smaller employers, like construction, agriculture, meat packing and landscaping, which are more pinched for labor, especially if the economy ever recovers. But while most businesses are more likely to see "reform" as a robust guest worker program, a reliable identification system and a strong border security program, some prefer porous borders for the flow of more voters likely to vote Democrat.
The Republicans are split among those wanting to do nothing until border security is a proven reality, those unwilling to put anything in a law that the president could bend to an irrevocable windfall for 10-15 million illegals and those wanting a substantial guest worker program or wanting to demonstrate sympathy to Hispanic voters.
Agriculture generally wants an "all of the above" bill.
Part of the problem is the differing definitions of "reform.” Just as the hard left's idea of tax "reform" is raising taxes, many left and ethnic folks see "reform" as one key thing – giving citizenship to all the illegals already here. Many in both parties see such a move as changing the American political landscape permanently, skewing it to the left.
While some point to polls finding that a large majority of Americans want to fix the immigration system, this is not a "any bill is better than no bill" situation. No bill is better than a bad bill, which is why we are where we are. Remember the Christmas holiday Senate bill voters shot down with letters and phone calls several years ago?
House Speaker John Boehner's talk of wanting to get something done on immigration before the midterms is a blend of assuring donors that he wants to get something done –while explaining the timing is not right – and starting the herd on a long drive the Republicans eventually must make.
If there is any more reason for a stall, it is the very existence of the 2013 Senate-passed bill that Republicans will not abide under any circumstances. Since this is the second session of the 113th Congress, that bill will die after 2014. In 2015, the Republicans could go about crafting a new bill, possibly with control of both the House and Senate. It might easily take two years to craft a bill everyone could live with anyway. Congress could then take their chances of President Obama going rogue or get a bill ready in time for a 2016 president of either party more trustworthy to uphold the law as written.
By passing the bill the Senate did, with little assurance on border security and an inadequate guest worker program, the Senate virtually boxed themselves in. The Republican House is going to take no chances of being locked in a room with that bill and Sen. Reid. That factor alone would seemingly make immigration reform impossible in 2014.