Senate Democratic leaders are divided over their immigration strategy, with some top Dems questioning Chuck Schumer’s continued public statements that Dems must secure 70 votes in the Upper Chamber for immigration reform. The idea is that garnering broad bipartisan support for the “gang of eight” compromise would ratchet up pressure on the House GOP leadership to allow a vote on it. Democrats such as Dick Durbin and Harry Reid are publicly questioning this strategy.

But in an interview with Time magazine, Schumer reiterated that this should be the goal:

In Schumer’s view, winning 70 votes in the Senate will ratchet up the pressure  on House Republicans. Speaker John Boehner has said the House would take up  parallel legislation rather than simply accept the Senate measure. “That’s what he says,” Schumer argues. “If we get 70 votes, and all the John Boehners of the  Senate are voting for the bill? He’ll change.”

What Schumer appears to mean here is that if mainstream conservative senators such as Orrin Hatch, Lamar Alexander, and Saxby Chambliss vote for the Senate bill, then Boehner will allow a vote on it.

There is considerable disagreement with this among Senate Dem aides, however. For one thing, they don’t understand the utility of publicly setting 70 votes as a goal. If Dems fall short of that amount, they worry that it will look like a defeat. For another, aides ask, why would Boehner be more likely to allow a vote on the Senate bill if Dems get 70 votes, rather than 65? If Boehner does allow a vote, goes this calculation, it won’t be because of the tally in the Senate. It will be because major stakeholders in the GOP — the business community, the consultant/strategist class – will be pressuring Boehner to allow the vote, on the theory that reform must pass for the good of the GOP. What’s more, it will also be because enough mainstream conservatives in the House privately want reform to pass for the same reason (even as they vote against it); if that happens, Boehner’s speakership will not be at risk.

One House GOP aide ridiculed the idea that the vote total in the Senate could force Boehner’s hand.  “Looking back over the past few years, Senator Schumer’s public predictions about the motives and actions of House Republicans have been eerily — and at times hilariously — inaccurate,” he emailed.

Finally, what’s perhaps most mystifying to Dem aides about Schumer’s formulation is the fact that Schumer is on record adamantly declaring that Democrats will never give away major concessions to achieve that 70 votes. Indeed, Schumer has publicly given the thumbs down to the John Cornyn amendment, which would undercut the path to citizenship and undermine reform. That’s good, and Schumer deserves props for it. But if Schumer is not willing to give away anything major to get that 70 votes, why keep articulating it as a desirable goal?

In Schumer’s defense, he seems to see articulating the goal of broad bipartisan support in the Senate as a good message in and of itself. And since the bill is going to be changed in the Senate via the amendment process, Schumer is engaged in a delicate dance, in which he wants to create space for conservatives to achieve some concessions on border security, even as Dems don’t give them too much. In other words, Dems need to signal that they will not give an inch on anything that undermines the path to citizenship, even as they do allow the process to give Republicans a way to tell conservatives that their interests are being protected.

Still, there seems to be a fair amount of dissatisfaction among Senate Dems about Schumer’s chosen strategy. We’ll soon find out who is right.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.