Here’s how Republicans may try to kill immigration reform

August 20, 2013

As I’ve been arguing, the August recess has brought a bit good news on immigration: we’ve seen at least a few House Republicans trying to sincerely grapple with the issue and move towards comprehensive reform.

Now for the bad news: GOP Rep. Robert Goodlatte — who wields influence over immigration as Judiciary Committee chair — has now shown us what it will look like if House Republicans decide to kill reform, while trying to evade blame for it.

Goodlatte is being closely watched by both sides. Some have noted Goodlatte’s willingness to entertain a path to citizenship (without any special pathway), while others believe Goodlatte is more likely to end up sticking a knife in comprehensive reform’s back while talking a nice game about doing something for the DREAMers even as he winks at the right.

Goodlatte made some comments at a town hall meeting late yesterday that are attracting attention because he opposed a “special pathway” to citizenship. That matters, but it’s not really new, and far more important is something else he said. This quote, captured by HuffPo’s Elise Foley, is potentially significant:

The bills that House Republicans do support may go nowhere, Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told constituents and immigration activists gathered in a large public meeting room.

“Will the Senate agree to them? I don’t know,” Goodlatte said. “But I don’t think Republicans in the House … should back away from setting forth the right way to do things.”

“Even if it doesn’t go all the way through to be signed by this president — because I have a hard time, like you do, envisioning him signing some of those things — it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least show the American people that we are interested in solving this very serious problem that we have in our country,” he added later.

This is a bit vague, but here’s one way to read this: As long as House Republicans pass a few immigration reform solutions of their own, they will have demonstrated to the American people that they want to solve the immigration problem, and it won’t matter whether their efforts facilitate a compromise with Obama and Democrats.

The notion that Republicans will be able to avoid blame for killing immigration reform seems daft on its face, since even Republicans say the willingness to discuss reform is more about repairing relations with Latinos than doing something the American people overall want. Leading Hispanic media figures have said Latinos will blame Republicans for the death of reform, and polls have confirmed the same.

Indeed, immigration reform advocates are pouncing on Goodlatte’s comments. Frank Sharry, the head of America’s Voice, emails his reading of them:

Despite the fact that a majority of the public and a bipartisan majority of House members back reform with a path to citizenship, Rep. Goodlatte seems to accept that the House will get to “no.”  Why would he desire such an outcome?  Because he hates the bipartisan Senate bill, doesn’t want to get into a negotiation with the Senate – which could lead to a comprehensive approach he opposes – and he wants to position the Republicans to be competitive in the blame game that would follow reform’s demise.  If we’re right, he wants to pretend to want to get reform done, he wants to get a majority of House Republicans to agree with his bills, and then, when Democrats say it’s not good enough, try to blame them for “blocking reform” – as if the GOP is ever going to win a blame game on immigration reform.

Ultimately, the fate of immigration reform rests in the hands of John Boehner and the GOP leadership. But Goodlatte will play an important role in influencing the debate inside the GOP caucus. Right now, some advocates think GOP leaders — particularly Paul Ryan and even Boehner to some degree — want to find a way to get to comprehensive reform. But others think they are merely making nice noises designed to bide their time, giving themselves cover to let reform die later while doing whatever they can to minimize the blame for it amid a bout of finger-pointing by both sides. Goodlatte’s comments show us what the latter approach could end up looking like.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Jonathan Bernstein | August 20, 2013