With the government spending and debt ceiling debates now tabled for a few months, a number of lobbyists are hoping to steer lawmakers’ attention back to immigration reform and finish the work they started earlier this year.
But is it too late?
“I was optimistic a few months ago,” Steve Case, chief executive of investment firm Revolution and a vocal proponent of immigration reform in Washington, said about the chances of a bill moving through Congress this year. “I’m a little more cautiously optimistic now.”
Case, one of the entrepreneurs behind America Online, was part of a lobbying blitz from technology and business leaders that helped drive a comprehensive immigration bill through the Senate in June. However, the proposal fell flat in the House, and recent crises abroad (Syria) and at home (the government shutdown) have pushed immigration reform further down the to-do list in Congress.
“It has nothing to do with the momentum around immigration,” Case said of the stalled legislation. “It’s just that the oxygen has been sucked out by the showdown over the debt ceiling and the shutdown... it’s been frustrating.”
During the last few weeks, however, Case says a handful of lawmakers have continued to work behind the scenes on smaller immigration measures in the House, adding that he has had productive discussions with leaders on both sides of the aisle, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
The immigration debate has captured the attenion of many entrepreneurs and business groups, some of whom warn that the country’s position as a start-up hub is threatened by immigration laws that often prevent young firms from hiring talented workers from abraod. In addition, they bemoan visa restrictions that prevent foreign entrepreneurs who want to come start companies in the United States from doing so.
“Ultimately, the big debate right now is over the fiscal future of the country,“Case said. “The best way to ensure our fiscal future is to boost entrepreneurship and innovation, and the best way to do that is to pass immigration reform that helps us win the global battle for talent.”
Jeremy Robbins, director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, one of the advocacy groups that helped lobby in favor of the legislation this spring, says his team has also continued to forge ahead despite the distractions in Washington.
“We didn’t think we would get the time of day from legislators while they were dealing with the debt ceiling and the shutdown, but have still been talking to them, and they are still working on this,” Robbins said.
Now that lawmakers have forged an agreement to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling, President Obama has said he plans to make immigration reform a top prioirty during the remaining months of 2013 — and Robbins’ group is taking steps to make sure that’s the case.
On Oct. 29, his team is helping fly more than 300 business, technology and religious leaders to Washington to urge House Republicans to move forward on immigration reform legislation. Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us lobbying arm, entrepreneurship advocacy group EngineAdvocacy, Republican anti-tax leader Grover Norquist, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will also take part in the rally.
“There is a very clear window up until Thanksgiving where, if House leadership wanted to push a series of immigration bills, they could,” Robbins said.
Many political analysts have suggested lawmakers will be less likely to pass any major legislation next year, as the midterm elections approach. In addition, the new temporary spending agreement sets up another potential spending and deficit showdown in January, giving immigration reform proponents only a small opening.
And there are a number of other hurdles standing in their way.
House Republicans, for instance, have insisted on tackling the nation’s immigration woes piece-by-piece rather than all at once, while Democrats, including President Obama, have said they will support nothing less than a comprehensive package. A bipartisan group of seven representatives that was attempting to craft one large bill started to unravel last month, and remaining members say they will not be introducing a bill by year’s end as originally promised — leaving only one viable approach.
“The House has laid out a strategy of passing a series of bills and then going to conference with the Senate to come up with a comprehensive package,” Case said. Ideally, he said, lawmakers will start by approving some of the more popular parts of the Senate bill, like additional visas for foreign-born entrepreneurs and highly-trained workers, and then move on to contentious issues like border security and a path to citizenship.
It appears unlikely that even the most widely supported provisions of the Senate package could pass on their own if the House does not eventually come together around a comprehensive bill.
“I think they are all married to the larger deal,” Case said. “There is a broad coalition pushing for immigration reform, and each constituency cares about different issues, so I don’t think you can keep the coalition together and have enough Republican and Democrat support to pass bits and pieces of immigration reform.”
A number of anti-immigration-reform groups, like NumbersUSA in Arlington, Va., have expressed confidence that the House will not pass legislation that included some of the fundamental provisions of the Senate bill; thus, leaders say they are not worried about a deal gaining traction on Capitol Hill.
Case and Robbins say they have come away with a different impression from their discussions with lawmakers.
“Do I think it’s definitely going to happen in October or November? No, not with the way things have been going,” Robbins said. “But we are at least hearing the right things and we think there is a window of opportunity.”