Advocates of immigration reform, who once hoped to have a bill on President Obama's desk before Congress leaves for their annual August recess, should be nervously checking the calendar. If the House and Senate adjourn before a bill is finished, members will begin feeling pressure, especially from conservative critics who think the bill amounts to little more than amnesty.
Immigration reform backers need only recall four years ago, when the August recess gave rise to scenes of angry protests at town hall meetings across the country, protests that effectively ended any hope Democrats had of winning Republican support for comprehensive health care reform.
Six months into Obama's first term in office, Democrats held out hope that they could fashion a bipartisan agreement on health care reform. Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was working closely with Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee's ranking member. Obama himself was assiduously wooing Sen. Olympia Snowe, who seemed open to reform. And White House officials believed they could find areas of common ground with dozens of Republicans in the House to form a truly bipartisan set of reforms.
Then came August, when conservative protesters who affiliated themselves with the nascent Tea Party movement descended upon town hall meetings held by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Democrats were on the defensive while Republicans, who might have once considered supporting a compromise, realized the level of anger their base felt over the bill.
As August recess began, Jim Manley, then a top advisor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had snuck away from the office to get in a quick vacation in his native Minneapolis. He was on the golf course when he received phone calls from two reporters, asking him to respond to comments Grassley had made at a town hall meeting in Panora, Iowa.
Grassley had adopted the language of the Tea Party movement. "If you've got a government-run health-care program and you have crowding out, and then you go to a Canadian-style plan and everyone starts studying what England does ... when you couple this with all of other fears people have and what they do in England, then you get the idea that somebody is going to decide Grandma has lived too long," Grassley said, according to a Washington Post account.
Manley called Reid, who was home in Nevada. "We've got a problem on our hands," he told the top Senate Democrat.
This time, many of the same activists who made their opposition to health care reform felt are turning their ire towards the immigration reform proposal currently making its way through the Senate. With Democrats likely to support the bill in overwhelming numbers, the targets of activist anger will be Republicans who have yet to make up their mind.
"You can pretty much guarantee that if this bill is hanging out there over the August recess, conservative activists are going to be motivated," said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, one of the Washington-based conservative groups that opposes the Gang of Eight's bill.
Several Republican aides on Capitol Hill said they were conscious of the time crunch Congress faces. With just five legislative weeks left before the August recess, the Senate is only now getting around to voting on the full immigration reform package. Action in the House has been even slower. There is no announced timeline for immigration legislation; there isn't even an agreement on whether the House should take up a comprehensive bill or a number of smaller measures in a piecemeal approach.
Two House leadership aides said they expect the House to act on immigration before the August recess. But, they said, it's unlikely a conference committee, in which the House and Senate iron out differences between their respective bills, would be underway by the time Congress breaks for the summer.
That likely means members of Congress will head home to mobilized crowds of the bill's opponents. Immigration reform backers counting on votes from farm state Republicans may find those members reluctant to go against such a tidal wave of opposition back home. Holler said Heritage isn't organizing around town hall meetings yet, but "if the opportunity presents itself, we will be engaged."
One House Republican aide suggested that a way to avoid repeating the scenes of angry town halls would simply be to refrain from holding town hall meetings in the first place. A quick survey of several Republican member offices showed none had scheduled town hall meetings during the August recess yet, though those meetings usually aren't scheduled until closer to the break.
Manley, Reid's former communications director, recalled that Democrats had prepared their members for opposition to the health care bill back in 2009. But just days into the break, he realized they hadn't planned enough. Republicans who back comprehensive immigration reform as good politics for the party might want to begin their own preparations. August could be a hot month.