One message that came through loud and clear in President Obama’s immigration speech: He’s not interested in a repeat of the protracted negotiations-to-nowhere that stalled health reform during his first term.
While Obama hailed the “good news” that “Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together,” he also made clear that his patience is limited. “We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate,” he said Tuesday at a Las Vegas high school. “If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.”
Several Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee met for months in 2009 to discuss health care, and finally disbanded without resolving their disagreements. The delay was costly. Among other things, health-reform champion Sen. Edward Kennedy died and Republican Scott Brown won a special election to succeed him, in part by vowing to block “Obamacare.” He failed, but only because Democrats engaged in some fancy parliamentary footwork to get a House-Senate compromise over the finish line.
Republicans have strong political incentives to pass immigration reform, but that doesn’t mean it will pass. Obama predicted a heated debate and “folks who are trying to pull this thing apart.” House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, responded to Obama's speech with a warning of his own. “We hope the President is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate,” he said.
Presumably, Obama would be dragging the debate to the left if he insisted on letting U.S. citizens and legal residents sponsor same-sex partners, or offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship without waiting for border security to meet certain standards. Those are two of the significant differences between his plan and the proposal from a bipartisan Senate group.
In Las Vegas, the Obama did not dwell on differences. Instead he offered a history and civics lesson wrapped in the mythology of the American Dream: Immigrants helped start Google, Yahoo, Intel and Instagram! All those previous waves of immigrants, “before they were ‘us,’ they were ‘them.’” This is about people, not policy. Yes, they broke the rules, but they are now “woven into the fabric of our lives.”
Between the lecture on timeliness and a campaign rally atmosphere punctuated by bursts of adoring applause, there was not much in Obama’s appearance for Republicans to love. His deadlines, his tone, even the lofty rhetoric he employed -- all served as a reminder, once again, that he won the White House. But Republicans can’t afford to opt out of this enterprise. They're unlikely to win the White House themselves until immigrants, legal or not, view them as friends rather than foes.