It's been almost a year since the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform.
The Capitol was packed with advocates. Vice President Joe Biden presided over the vote, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had senators cast votes from their desks, a rare move to underscore the historic nature of the day. Undocumented students filled the Senate gallery, and shook their hands in the air—a silent gesture in place of applause—with each "aye" vote cast.
The kind of optimism that permeated that day has all but disappeared from Capitol Hill.
Now, Senate Democratic leaders have set a hard deadline for the Republican-controlled House to move on comprehensive immigration reform: July 31, that last day the House is in session before August recess.
"They have about a six-week window, from June 10 after the last Republican primary till the August recess," the Senate's No. 3 Democrat, Chuck Schumer, said Thursday at a press conference. "If they don't pass immigration reform then, the president will have no choice but to act on his own."
Reid gave one of his strongest endorsements yet of President Obama taking strong executive action on deportation policy this year. Under pressure from immigration advocates, including the National Council of La Raza president calling him "deporter-in-chief," Obama ordered Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in March to review the administration's approach to deportations and recommend possible changes. The result of that review could come in June.
"We're willing to wait another six weeks, but at the end of six weeks, if something hasn't been done, then there's going to have to be a move made," Reid said. "And it's too bad we have to do that, because we all know things can be done administratively, but it's better to change the law."
The concept of a threat of executive action in the face of House GOP inaction has actually been floated before, by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Recall that Rubio was one of the senators who crafted the Senate immigration bill, but he's largely turned away from the issue since.
Democrats have also called out House Republicans for saying they can't pass immigration reform because they can't trust President Obama to enforce the law. "Let's pass immigration reform today, make it take effect at the beginning of 2017," Reid said. "If Republicans don't trust President Obama, let's give them a chance to implement the bill under President Rand Paul or President Theodore Cruz."
(Sen. Ted Cruz's first name is actually Rafael, but moving on....) Schumer has previously brought up the idea of changing the Senate bill so that it doesn't take effect until Obama is out of office. Now, Reid has formalized it and packaged it as a "compromise."
It's unclear how exactly that would happen. And House Republican leadership immediately shot the plan down. "Such a scenario would eliminate any incentive for the administration to act on border security or enforce the law for the remainder of President Obama's term," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
House Republicans haven't ruled out implementing immigration reform this year. "There's nobody more interested in fixing this problem than I am," Boehner said Thursday.
But the growing sense on the Hill is that the window for any sort of immigration-related bill is rapidly closing. Just take this modest House proposal to allow "Dreamers" to enlist in the military and earn legal status. Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said he supports it in principle, but it was blocked from coming to the House floor this week on a must-pass defense bill. And its prospects as a standalone measure later this year are uncertain.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who also helped craft last year's Senate immigration bill, agreed that if the House doesn't move by July 31, then reform is "not getting done."
But Flake acknowledged the mistrust that House Republicans say is preventing them from mobilizing now. "My point has always been, 95 percent of this will be enacted by a future president anyway if we don't do anything," he told National Journal. "I don't think it's a reasonable excuse not to move ahead, but there is a lot of mistrust, and to talk about further executive action just furthers that, so it's not a good thing."
The Obama administration is increasingly looking at executive actions to take where Congress won't act. On deportations, Obama is walking a thin line. On the one hand, advocates have taken the president to task for what they view as his dismal record on deportations, and Hispanic support for the president has been dropping. On the other, strong executive action could be interpreted as killing immigration reform.
The calculation rests with House action this year, and once it becomes abundantly clear that there won't be any, Obama will be in a more flexible position to act.
Republicans are now trying to criticize Democratic efforts on immigration reform as politicizing an issue rather than looking for compromise. A Republican National Committee spokesperson pointed out that Democrats failed to act in 2009 and 2010, when they held the House, Senate, and White House.
"Immigration reform becomes important to Democrats when it is election time," said RNC spokeswoman Izzy Santa. "Where was Harry Reid's daily indignation about the president's inaction on family unification when Democrats had a supermajority?"
But the GOP will have to come to grips with the political ramifications, should their party end up being perceived as killing immigration reform. That sense of urgency hasn't taken hold just yet, given how so few Republicans are viewed as vulnerable in this year's elections over the issue of immigration.
"For the midterm election, I don't think it makes much difference," Flake said. "For the presidential election, I think it's devastating for Republicans. I do think we gotta move."
This article appears in the May 23, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.