A Republican Immigration Reform Bill: The Politics of Timing, Pt. 1

By Stanley Renshon on May 16, 2014

If Republicans gain control of the Senate, they will have a great many important agenda items to consider, and not much time to do something about them. The 114th Congress, elected in November 2014 will officially be in session from January 3, 2015, to January 3, 2017.

That session, during which Republicans might control both the House and the Senate, will unfold during a presidential election year. That election will take place on November 8, 2016, and the first GOP primaries are now scheduled for February 2016. Heavy political campaigning can be expected in the fall of 2015 as candidates test their themes and possible supporters.

Working backward, that means that the Republican-controlled House and Senate, if that happens, might only have a window of legislative opportunity that runs roughly from the first day it is officially seated, January 3, 2015, until October/November 2015, a period of approximately 10 months, before presidential campaigning begins in earnest.

Once that happens, presidential politics begins to weigh heavily on the legislative process, and the chances of reaching compromise accords on several important issues, including immigration, will be reduced. That is because, once the primary campaign intensifies it is inevitable that candidates will be asked to comment on proposed or pending immigration legislation, and may even have their own ideas on the subject.

That raises the following question: What is the relationship between any congressional Republican immigration reform bill and its presidential candidate? The quick, but inadequate, answer is: it depends on who that will be. Any Republican-passed bill, assuming it is signed by the president, and even if it isn't, will be the basis for a thousand press questions trying to gauge the gap between any presidential candidate's views and those embodied in the bill.

One response to that fact will be waiting until the candidate is chosen and letting him or her speak to the issue. The ostensible reasoning there might be that the candidate should have the freedom to develop his or her own views on the subject as a basis for any legislation. That is a reasonable point, but it has a number of very steep downsides:

  1. A part of that rationale will reflect the wish on the part of some Republicans that the issue would just go away. It will not. Quite the contrary.

  2. It exposes the Republican Party to the criticism, from the Democratic presidential candidate and his or her supporters, that its failure to pass any immigration bill, even when it has control of Congress, reflects its real "anti-immigrant", read "Hispanic", bias.

On the other hand, passing an immigration reform bill, even if the president does not sign it into law, would give one enormous advantage to any Republican presidential candidate:

  1. He or she could run in whole or in part on a bill that does what Americans have repeatedly said they want — enforcement of our immigration laws coupled with some empathy for the plight of illegal migrants who are, by their behavior here, deserving of some sympathetic consideration.

On balance, this suggests that it may well be to a Republican candidate's advantage for there to be a House-Senate reform immigration bill that addresses all the basic issues: real border and interior enforcement, a true vetting of all those apply for legalization, and a more equal balance between education/skill visas and those for family reunification — without resorting to the expedient of simply adding millions of new visa slots.

So it's possible that the larger window of opportunity for Republicans might well extend from January 3, 2015, when the new Congress is seated until June 2016 — the possible date of the Republican Party convention, or approximately 16 months.

That is more than enough time. The question is what to do and when to do it.

Next: A Republican Immigration Reform Bill: The Politics of Timing, Pt. 2