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Why gay groups should keep fighting on immigration

One of the stories of the day is that gay rights groups are pressing for equal treatment in the immigration reform bill that’s working its way through Congress. The current Senate “Gang of Eight” compromise does not treat homosexual couples in the same way it does heterosexual couples when it comes to the ability to sponsor legal immigration of a non-citizen spouse. A coalition of gay rights groups is demanding a change to this.

Getting this included is a heavy lift. Marco Rubio has already flatly stated that the bill would “die” if this happened, because it would cause the coalition behind it “to fall apart.” It could reportedly alienate evangelicals and social conservatives inclined to support reform, and give opponents yet another tool to frighten away House Republicans. And there is already a rising murmur on the left that gay rights advocates might simply have to accept defeat here for the good of immigration reform’s prospects.

But gay rights advocates should not give up. They should continue pushing for inclusion in this bill. There are two reasons for this: One substantive, and the other political.

The first is that, if gay groups continue the fight, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the provisions they want could get included. As best as I can determine, there may well be a vote on them at the committee level. Given the sudden national focus on gay rights, and the rising importance of gay rights in Democratic Party politics, such a vote could conceivably pass. Despite Rubio’s protestations, it’s not clear that it’s an absolute sure thing that this would tank the bill. Many Republican officials very much want reform to pass, for the good of the party long-term. Will enough Republican officials really opt to kill it out of anti-gay bigotry and face the long term demographic consequences of scuttling reform entirely? Maybe; maybe not.

But even if the protections gay rights groups want did get into the bill — and even if that did threaten its prospects — they could always end up getting spiked later if necessary to salvage reform. If that were to happen — or if those provisions were never to get into the bill at all — keeping up the fight now would still translate into political value later.

Here’s why. The pro-reform side is engaged in a delicate dance, one designed to maintain some distance between the emerging compromise and President Obama. If the bill is too closely associated with the president, it becomes even harder for House Republicans to support it. The White House supports putting the provisions gay rights groups want in the bill. And so, the lack of inclusion of those provisions in it — combined, crucially, with vocal pressure from the left to include them — helps reinforce impressions of that distance.

The White House appears aware of that dynamic. Asked today whether the White House worries that including them puts the bill at risk, spokesman Jay Carney reaffirmed that the White House supports what gay groups want, adding that the current legislation “broadly reflects the principles that the President has laid out, but it is not word for word in keeping with all of what he would do if he were to write it himself.”  Translation: We support the bill, but let’s be clear: This is far from the liberal dream legislation Obama wants.

If the provisions end up in there and it somehow passes, great. If they get in there and are killed later — or if they ultimately don’t get in there after a sustained and vocal campaign from the left — then the final compromise has come after a big concession by Obama and the left, putting distance between the bill and the president and his left wing supporters, making it marginally more likely to pass in the end.

All of this isn’t to say gay rights groups should oppose the bill completely if they don’t get what they want. As Gabriel Arana writes, a “path to citizenship has been a progressive dream for more than a decade,” and “if it comes down to it, the noble thing for gay-rights supporters to do” is to “recognize that you don’t get everything you want all the time.” But by all means, keep fighting right now. It can only help.