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If Republicans want immigration reform, they’ll have to get someone angry

For some reason, it’s being treated as a serious blow to immigration reform’s hopes that Mitch McConnell said today that the conflicts over it are “unresolvable.” Via Sahil Kapur, here’s what McConnell said:

“I think we have a sort of irresolvable conflict here,” he told reporters at his weekly press conference. “The Senate insists on comprehensive, the House says it won’t go to conference with the Senate on comprehensive, and wants to look at step-by-step. I don’t see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such different places.”

Oh, come on. The main differences that could derail reform’s chances have nothing to do with whether this will be done in one “comprehensive” bill or “step by step.” Dems have already said they have no objection to House Republicans passing reform in pieces, as long as the end result is something that in sum resembles comprehensive reform.

And that’s the rub — there is a debate over whether reform will end up as something comprehensive, but this debate centers on a core ideological difference over what should be done about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. If anything, McConnell’s claim suggests Republicans are already casting around for ways to blame reform’s failure on procedural differences, rather than on that fundamental dispute.

Here’s how you get to a deal despite these “irresolvable” differences. House Republicans pass a bunch of reforms in pieces, including proposals that bring the 11 million out of the shadows (Republicans will want to call this “probation”), and create a series of achievable and verifiable security benchmarks, some of which are met at the outset, and others of which are met while the undocumented are working. GOP Reps. Paul Ryan and Mario Diaz-Balart have both hinted at this possibility.

Dems give up the “special” pathway to citizenship, and instead agree to accept legalization in exchange for a GOP agreement to smooth existing pathways to citizenship. To my knowledge, that latter policy idea is understood by Republicans who want to get to Yes as a necessary component of any deal that gets Dems to concede on citizenship. In this scenario, both sides are making real concessions.

Yes, Republicans say they won’t enter into “conference” talks with Dems because #Obummer won’t enforce the law. Whatever. If they get as far as the scenario outlined above, the two sides can enter into legislative Ping-Pong that unfolds as back channel talks take place. Republicans can say they didn’t pass anything “comprehensive,” that they insisted on enforcement and not “amnesty,” and that they never supported a “special” pathway to citizenship — and all those things will be true. At that point what matters is whether Dems can get a handful of GOP Senators — a number of whom already voted for a more comprehensive bill.

It will not be easy for House Republicans to get to the place where they accept “legalization,” or “probation,” before opponents of reform declare security and enforcement 100 percent complete. That’s because opponents will never allow for that to be acknowledged, since the whole point of insisting on it before legalization is to kill reform. At the end of the process, Republicans will have to vote on a final bill that will also be opposed by foes.

The bottom line is that Republicans will have to get opponents angry at some point if reform is to happen, and decide instead to throw their lot in with GOP-aligned constituencies like the business community, evangelicals, agricultural interests, and tech interests. The decision whether to risk that wrath will be made by House Republicans. They may decide not to go through with it. But Mitch McConnell is largely irrelevant to that process, which is to say, the process that will determine if reform lives or dies.


UPDATE: The most comprehensive explanation I’ve seen of how this compromise would work in policy terms is laid out in this report by Stuart Anderson.