The House won’t have a bipartisan immigration bill. That’s (maybe) okay.

June 5, 2013

The bipartisan House group that's been working for years on an immigration bill is about to break up without anything to show for it. ABC News reports that the negotiations crashed on the shoals of whether immigrants would have access to government-subsidized health care during their 15-year path to citizenship. So what comes next? "The House is likely to pass several smaller bills that address immigration reform, but would not include a pathway to citizenship."

Probably won't happen ahora. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Probably won't happen ahora. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Disaster? Maybe not. There's a theory going around that that's actually better for the final bill. The premise is that the purpose of the House process is to get a bill through the House. It could be a good bill. It could be a bad bill. It just has to be a bill. Because once something makes it through the House it will go to conference with the Senate. Once it goes to conference with the Senate, the Senate can force a product that's more like its bill than the House bill. And once the process is that near to completion, House Republicans will be afraid to kill it. Speaker John Boehner will waive the Hastert rule, it'll be passed with a bunch of Democratic votes, and President Obama will have something to sign.

Under this theory, anything that keeps the process moving in the House is a good thing. That means the break-up of the bipartisan House group might be a good thing. Whatever came out of the bipartisan group was likely to fail in the broader House. Either it would be too liberal for the Republicans or too conservative for the Democrats. And once it failed, there'd be no replacement. Everyone's political capital would already be used up.

Letting Republicans break the bill into pieces makes it likelier that some of those pieces will pass. It also makes it easier for Republicans to vent their anger against certain parts of immigration reform -- like the path to citizenship -- without imperiling the whole bill. It makes it likelier that something, anything, passes the House.

This theory has some clear problems. It assumes success in the Senate. It assumes that House Republicans will fold before the Senate. It assumes Boehner will waive the Hastert rule and permit a vote on a bill many in his caucus don't support. Any and all of these assumptions could be wrong. But they're necessary assumptions for any and all paths to success on the bill, including those that run through a bipartisan House proposal. That law, too, would be closer to what the Senate wants than to what House Republicans want, and that law, too, would require Democratic votes.

In the end, this really does come down to the House Republican leadership. If they want to pass this thing, there are ways to pass it. If they're willing to accept failure, then that's what they'll get.

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Dylan Matthews · June 5, 2013