The basic math of immigration reform in the House

May 27, 2013

Be careful of immigration bill analyses that give heavy weight to the strongest opponents of what they call “amnesty.”

A Reuters story that got a fair amount of attention this past weekend does just that. Prospects for an immigration bill passing the House are indeed hard to report on, but the key here isn’t what House extremists want. Their votes aren’t in play anyway.

Look at the math. As Reuters notes, Republicans currently have a 233-201 edge in the House.

Can Republicans pass any immigration bill without Democratic support? That would be the case if they attempt to pass a slimmed-down bill without any path to citizenship.  Republicans have been claiming they can do that, but I still think it’s unlikely. Such a bill would probably get very few Democratic votes — perhaps none at all. Meanwhile, if the bill were generous at all toward immigrants it would almost certainly lose those Republican members who oppose immigration reform of any kind; if it was harsh toward immigrants it would presumably lose moderates and those conservatives who believe that support for immigration is the proper conservative position. Either way, it’s hard to see them getting to 218 with only Republicans.

On the other hand, legislation with a path to citizenship would have support from the bulk of the Democrats and need only a relatively small group of Republicans to join them. Judging from the Senate — where three of the eight Republicans on the Judiciary Committee already voted for a comprehensive bill — finding 20 or 30 Republicans to vote yes shouldn’t be too hard.

However, that scenario depends on House Speaker John Boehner bringing whatever the Senate passes to the House floor. He’s said he won’t do that, but as I’ve said before, he surely would if it’s the only way of getting a bill to pass and, crucially, if the majority of his conference wants a bill to pass.

Which is where it gets complicated for reporters. It may be the case that a fair number of Republican members want a bill to pass — but without their votes. They may believe that the bill is good for Republicans in general but not in their districts; they may even believe that their own long-term prospects are better with an immigration bill in place but that their short-term prospects could be endangered if they support it.

If that’s the case, however, those members who support passing the bill but don’t want to vote for it are certainly not going to want reporters to print that; for the record, they may even be among those who denounce “amnesty” the loudest. A tricky assignment for reporters, indeed. And a good reason for all those reading the news coverage to be very cautious.

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Jamelle Bouie | May 27, 2013