Here’s why an immigration deal in 2014 seems unlikely

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday dumped cold water all over the idea that Congress will be able to overhaul the nation’s immigration system sometime in 2014.


Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, speaks during a news conference after the weekly Republican Democratic Policy Committee meeting Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“The Senate insists on comprehensive and the House says it won't go to conference with the Senate on comprehensive and wants to look at it step-by-step,” he told reporters. “I don't see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place.”

As we've written before, when McConnell talks it's always worth listening; he's probably the most astute political strategist -- with the possible exceptions of Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer -- currently in the Senate.

McConnell’s proclamation yesterday came after what seemed to be a series of indications that the prospects of an immigration deal were improving. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has made it clear he wants congressional Republicans to begin making real headway on a deal. In December, Boehner hired Rebecca Tallent, a longtime aide to Sen. John McCain and an immigration expert. At the time, Boehner’s office said Tallent’s task would be to help “enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms -- the kind of reforms the American people understand and support,” and Republicans took the hiring as a sign that immigration would be a top 2014 priority.

Then, last week, the House GOP unveiled a list of its immigration reform priorities, which included exploring an option to grant legal status to illegal immigrants who are currently in the country, but not necessarily a pathway to citizenship. President Obama, who would prefer a deal that includes a path to citizenship, then said he might be okay with that.

These steps were seen as the biggest indication in years that House Republicans may be ready to compromise on immigration reform, and Boehner’s motive in shepherding the GOP to such efforts is clear. The GOP faces major problems come 2016 if they can not stymie the Democrats’ demographic advantages with Hispanics. Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of Hispanic voters in 2012, and, by the time Obama’s second term is up, those voters are expected to represent an even more powerful chunk of the electorate.

But working through a complex issue like immigration requires finding just the right sweet spot. Compromise too much -- by providing full amnesty to immigrants already living in the country illegally -- and the GOP would enrage the conservatives at the core of its base. Refuse to budge at all, and they risk passing a House bill that will never make it through the Senate and will do little to win over Hispanic voters.

And, finding that sweet spot is made even harder by the fact that this is a midterm election year.

Recent polling shows that Republican voters still lag behind the broader electorate when it comes to support for the exact types of reforms (specifically, pathway to citizenship) that would  be included in an immigration deal. In fact, more Republican voters told the conductors of a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes a pathway to citizenship than they would for a candidate who supports one.

On top of that, in a midterm election it's those base voters -- and not the broader electorate -- who will be the ones headed to the ballot box. Of the House districts most heavily comprised of Hispanic voters, most are heavily Republican districts that the GOP is likely to carry in the midterms whether it has moved on immigration or not.

It’s numbers like those that lead many Republicans to believe that, while softening some of the party’s hard-line stances on immigration is advantageous in the long term, 2014 is exactly the wrong time for the GOP to begin talks on an immigration reform package.

On Tuesday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz expressed those very concerns in comments to The Post, saying that pursuing immigration reform “makes utterly no sense unless your objective is to keep Harry Reid as majority leader.”

The logic is simple: Pursuing immigration reform in 2014 will make much of the national narrative about GOP infighting. It will also likely fuel tea party primary challengers to current incumbents -- which could create more competitive general election races for seats that the GOP is looking to retain.

One of those seats, remember, is McConnell’s, as he faces a primary challenge from Matt Bevin, a Kentucky businessman who hopes to outflank the incumbent to his right.

For McConnell and other congressional Republicans, their political survival is at stake this year -- and a drawn out immigration battle is exactly what they don’t need.

While the GOP brass has signaled the need to make real, public efforts toward passing immigration reform if the party wants to truly rebrand and be competitive come 2016, rank-and-file members have a more urgent election on their minds: this year’s midterms.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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