Gun bill’s failure may help immigration legislation

Chris Cillizza
Reporter April 21, 2013

Here’s an odd political reality: The collapse of the gun bill in the Senate last week may well make the passage of immigration reform legislation slightly easier.

“I think the continued intensity of the dysfunction of Congress on this [gun] vote will help immigration,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “I don’t think the opposing senators — Democrats and Republicans — expected the reaction, backlash and how they were portrayed” in the wake of the failure of the amendment to expand background checks for firearms purchases.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

The simple fact is that for Republicans broadly and Democrats in swing states — particularly those up for reelection next year — voting in favor of legislation that would restrict gun rights and overhaul the immigration system was too much to swallow. (And that’s not even considering the impact the move toward supporting gay marriage has had on the electoral calculations of these members.)

With the gun bill gone from the legislative calendar for the near future, immigration becomes a more doable vote for conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans — as well as senators with large Hispanic populations in their states. Simply put: Unlike with gun control, senators may well be looking for a way to get to “yes” rather than “no” on immigration.

There are several other reasons — aside from timing — that the political calculus around the immigration bill is different from that of guns.

First and foremost, immigration has been a bipartisan effort for months while the gun bill was a last-minute attempt by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) to patch together a deal to save legislation that was headed for defeat.

Not only has the “Gang of Eight” been working on an immigration compromise since the November election, but it includes a leading light of the conservative/tea party movement in Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). And even lawmakers such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who vehemently opposed the gun bill, have expressed some measure of support for changing the country’s immigration policies. “Republicans in Congress have adequate cover on the right to vote for immigration reform,” said one senior Democratic aide closely monitoring the issue.

It’s not only inside Congress where the momentum for change is stronger — at least at the moment — than for doing nothing. “There’s few voters for whom the status quo is critical on the immigration issue as opposed to guns, and there are no powerful interest groups with roots in members’ districts touting the ‘status quo’ approach on immigration,” explained one veteran Republican pollster who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly address the politics surrounding the issues.

Remember that one of the most critical elements of the gun fight was not only the power — lobbying and in the context of campaigns — of the National Rifle Association, but also the dearth of a matching force in the gun-control community. Groups put together by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had some influence but simply lacked the long and deep roots within Congress that the NRA enjoyed.

The opposite is true in the immigration debate. Organizations insisting that no change is better than any change in the country’s immigration policies exist, but they are no match — financially and otherwise — for the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bloomberg (again) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, all of whom are pushing for reform of the nation’s immigration laws.

And then there are the obvious political considerations — especially for Republicans. Given that Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election, there is a sense of urgency within the GOP leadership to put immigration reform behind them in hopes of courting the Hispanic vote through appeals on social issues where the two groups share much more in common. (Worth noting: Somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of Americans support expanded gun background checks, according to surveys, yet that didn’t make it politically impossible for senators to vote against it.)

There are those who insist that while immigration has more going for it politically than did guns, tying the two together or predicting that immigration will pass is a major mistake.

“Though members want to get to ‘yes’ on many of these issues, they also need to show independence after so many votes on both sides of the aisle that are easy fodder for 30-second ads in a difficult midterm climate next year,” explained a senior Democratic Senate operative. “This makes immigration a tossup.”

Fair enough. But a tossup is a better chance than gun legislation ever realistically had. And the failure of the gun bill may tilt immigration reform ever so slightly in favor of passage.

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