It’s been five years since the guns and immigration debates collided on Capitol Hill. This time, the results were even more unproductive.
In early 2013, weeks after a gunman killed 20 students and six educators at an elementary school in Connecticut, the Senate took up legislation that would have provided for enhanced background checks on gun purchases. That was followed by long consideration of a sweeping bill to provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and enhanced border security.
The gun legislation foundered amid a Republican filibuster, and a few months later the Senate passed the immigration plan — only to see it go nowhere in the House.
Today, the Senate is stuck in a quagmire on a narrower immigration bill, to benefit hundreds of thousands of undocumented young immigrants brought here as children. The House has not even scheduled an immigration debate despite a looming March 5 deadline after President Trump’s cancellation of an Obama-era executive order providing temporary legal status for “dreamers.”
And on gun violence, after Wednesday’s mass shooting that left 17 dead at a Florida high school, neither House nor Senate leaders have shown any inclination to revisit any gun legislation.
This inaction comes despite steady polling showing that more than 90 percent of voters want a tougher federal background check system for gun purchases. And on immigration, about 85 percent of voters support a legislative fix allowing dreamers to stay in the United States.
It’s left some lawmakers utterly confused as to why, even on issues that have overwhelming public support, Congress still does a face plant.
“It’s a big question. When you’ve got the answer, let me know,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), the lead Republican sponsor of the 2013 background check legislation.
Toomey still supports the legislation, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), but he indicated that there has been no change in the political dynamic on the issue over the past five years.
In the House, Democrats never got a vote on any gun-control bill — in fact, ever since Republicans took the majority in 2011, the House Judiciary Committee has not held a hearing dedicated to gun violence issues.
“Not one single hearing,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Friday during a conference call urging new legislation. “Inaction on this issue is unacceptable.”
After some thought, Toomey said there is no easy answer on guns and immigration even though polling shows that the public thinks it should not be difficult for Congress to act.
“Partly it’s our polarized political environment, obviously,” Toomey said. “Partly it’s because most of these issues are more complex than they appear at first blush.”
One senior House Republican blames the Senate for using an old political strategy to try to resolve too many issues at once, complicating what might be easy.
“It’s not the issue of the wall. It’s not the issue of dreamers; it’s not the issue of how you deal with those that present themselves at the border. It’s not how you deal with the family or chain piece. It’s the fact that we — Congress and especially the Senate — tries to group things into packages,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), the chief deputy Republican whip.
That is how it used to get done in Congress, cobbling together coalitions by adding some things that Democrats supported and other things Republicans wanted. “I’ll do this, if you do this. Then once you do that, you’ve gotta do this, and you’ve gotta do that,” McHenry said.
So in the Senate immigration proposals, Democrats got a path to citizenship for many of those living here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order of 2012, while Republicans got border security funding and some restrictions on legal immigration.
But that philosophy, building a too-big-to-fail package, has fallen by the wayside in these hyper-political times. Each side’s political base finds something that is highly objectionable. Rather than building up the vote total, lawmakers retreat to their corners if the legislation becomes too comprehensive.
McHenry, one of the savviest vote counters in the House, said he believes that healthy majorities would support each piece of the immigration puzzle that the Senate put together — just not in one big bill.
“So why don’t we do those individual things — rather than do them as a group — why don’t we do them as individual items? I think that is the better way to approach immigration,” McHenry said.
The Senate has become such a legislative wasteland that narrow legislation is seldom considered unless it has unanimous support and gets approved by a voice vote after almost everyone has gone home for the night.
Instead, everything gets balled up together. In 2013, the Manchin-Toomey bill was not just about background checks on gun purchases. It grew into a nearly 50-page piece of legislation that included issues such as interstate sales of guns and the creation of a commission to study violence.
Polling almost becomes irrelevant because the legislation that gets drafted to fix the important single issue ends up tackling so many issues that it is almost impossible to accurately measure public support.
Some Senate leaders are taking that lesson to heart, at least on immigration.
“I think it’s probably going to have to be something smaller,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said.
This was a nod to the narrower proposal offered by three Republicans — Sens. Jerry Moran (Kan.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and John Thune (S.D.) — that would provide legal status protections for dreamers and a more step-by-step approach to border funding.
McHenry noted that the Compromise of 1850 — which resolved a dispute over which territories to admit as free and slave states, ending the slave trade in Washington and other issues on the slave trade — first came to the Senate floor as a single massive package crafted by Henry Clay.
It failed. Then Stephen Douglas split it into five separate bills, each of which eventually became law and helped stave off the Civil War for another decade.
“Look at that as a reference point for immigration,” McHenry said. “How do you resolve complex issues where one issue completely taints the ability of resolving another issue?”