Budget-Deal Vapors

Is immigration reform in sight, or is it a mirage?

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 11: Chairman of the House Budget Committee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI.) offers remarks while joined by others form the GOP leadership, during a media availability following a Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol, December 11, 2013, in Washington, DC. House Speaker John Boehner responded to conservative groups opposing the newly announced bipartisan budget deal, saying 'They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous.' 
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
Dec. 17, 2013, 2:40 p.m.

The budget deal is a test­a­ment to the polit­ics of ex­haus­tion. And ex­haust.

House Re­pub­lic­ans were beaten up and be­draggled and jus­ti­fi­ably feared a shut­down se­quel as fu­tile and stu­pid as An­chor­man 2 ap­pears to be. The White House was and re­mains ex­hausted by the ag­on­ies of Obama­care and wouldn’t open up a second battle front on the budget — es­pe­cially when House Re­pub­lic­ans were will­ing to sue for peace on the second year of se­quest­ra­tion. Sen­ate Demo­crats were em­powered to cut the deal and did so by re­viv­ing the time-honored Wash­ing­ton tra­di­tion of trad­ing spend­ing now for sav­ings much, much later.

The con­tours of the deal thus es­tab­lished, the House passed the budget deal and fled the Cap­it­ol for the ex­haust fumes of wait­ing air­liners at neigh­bor­ing air­ports. The Sen­ate is about to do the same, leav­ing be­hind va­por trails of bi­par­tis­an peace on earth and good will to­ward ap­pro­pri­at­ors.

Of course, the path to this two-year spend­ing cease-fire was paved over the bowed backs of con­ser­vat­ive ad­vocacy groups — most aligned with tea-party sen­ti­ments, some that popped up to profit from them — who helped cre­ate the House Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in 2010 and pro­tect it in 2012.

House Speak­er John Boehner twice called the con­ser­vat­ives’ bluff and bull­dozed them. It was a first, and the rel­ish with which Boehner dis­patched his con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics (and the not-so-quiet cloak­room and cor­ridor huzzahs he re­ceived from rank-and-file Re­pub­lic­ans) raises this juicy ques­tion: Did it fore­shad­ow a break­through on im­mig­ra­tion?

Im­mig­ra­tion is, after all, the last re­main­ing do­mest­ic pri­or­ity Pres­id­ent Obama and Boehner share. Obama and Boehner’s re­la­tion­ship, while not warm, is less con­front­a­tion­al and more routinely civil. They’ve spoken twice since mid-Novem­ber. Obama called Boehner to wish him happy birth­day on Nov. 17 and after the House passed the budget deal. Deal­ings on Obama’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress, pre­vi­ously a bit nettle­some at the staff level, were routine.

This doesn’t mean im­mig­ra­tion can or will pass. But ir­rit­ants of the past are pre­cisely that. New pos­sib­il­it­ies have presen­ted them­selves, and the polit­ic­al and tac­tic­al cli­mate may, sev­er­al months hence, be such that Obama and Boehner find passing im­mig­ra­tion re­form ir­res­ist­ible.

Obama has already sent sig­nals to this ef­fect. He no longer de­mands the House pass the Sen­ate im­mig­ra­tion bill. After hint­ing in Ju­ly he would ac­cept a piece­meal ap­proach, he re­peated the state­ment again in Septem­ber and did so un­equi­voc­ally in Novem­ber. House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi had to re­luct­antly climb on board, just as she had to do on the budget deal. Obama moved. House Re­pub­lic­ans didn’t budge. Obama’s troubles with the Af­ford­able Care Act are not go­ing away. Im­ple­ment­a­tion will con­tin­ue to present polit­ic­al and op­er­a­tion­al prob­lems, something the White House knew well in ad­vance of the web­site fiasco (which is why the bungled rol­lout will look even worse in the sum­mer of 2014 than it does now). Obama may well need a sig­ni­fic­ant policy vic­tory in 2014, and im­mig­ra­tion will be the only live op­tion. It’s no co­in­cid­ence he re­in­forced his will­ing­ness to ac­cept a piece­meal ap­proach on im­mig­ra­tion in the midst of cyc­lone Obama­care.

Boehner signaled back with the hir­ing in Decem­ber of Re­becca Tal­lent, a former chief of staff to Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and a key play­er in draft­ing the 2007 im­mig­ra­tion bill Boehner re­lent­lessly de­mon­ized to de­feat. Top Obama ad­visers now be­lieve they have an im­mig­ra­tion in­ter­locutor in Boehner’s of­fice. One of the pres­id­ent’s closest ad­visers told me it’s pos­sible Boehner would have hired Tal­lent for cyn­ic­al reas­ons (to ap­pear more ag­gress­ive on re­form than he ac­tu­ally is), but there is zero chance Tal­lent would be so duped. Her treat­ise on the road to im­mig­ra­tion re­form speaks for it­self.

Tal­lent’s role gives House Re­pub­lic­ans something they’ve nev­er had since 2010 — a staffer who knows im­mig­ra­tion policy and polit­ics on both sides of the aisle and has the con­fid­ence and re­spect of the White House and Demo­crats. Un­til Tal­lent ar­rived, im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion was writ­ten by Vir­gin­ia Rep. Bob Good­latte’s able Ju­di­ciary sub­com­mit­tee staff, many of them hol­d­overs from former im­mig­ra­tion hard-liner Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. Smith — and to a cer­tain ex­tent Good­latte — have spe­cial­ized in draft­ing le­gis­la­tion just con­ser­vat­ive enough for House Demo­crats to rebel. Tal­lent has the ex­pert­ise, if so em­powered by Boehner and the GOP con­fer­ence, to drive a hard bar­gain that pulls Demo­crats farther than they would prefer, but not past the break­ing point of com­prom­ise.

This may have been why Boehner lowered the boom over the budget. Boehner needed to prove to him­self and his con­fer­ence that de­fy­ing con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics wasn’t sui­cid­al. That les­son will re­ver­ber­ate long after the pid­dling de­tails of the budget deal are for­got­ten. And it could provide the le­gis­lat­ive and polit­ic­al muscle memory Boehner needs to move on im­mig­ra­tion in the spring.

Boehner has to wait for the bulk of primary sea­son to pass (May or June) be­fore ser­i­ous im­mig­ra­tion work can be­gin. By then, much of the le­gis­la­tion can be writ­ten and the cal­en­dar cleared for ac­tion in the sum­mer. The House GOP lead­er on the budget deal, Rep. Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., may emerge as a key fig­ure. Ry­an’s ped­i­gree is not on im­mig­ra­tion policy, but con­fer­ence con­ser­vat­ives will fol­low him. He has the scars of the budget fights, the ex­per­i­ence of a na­tion­al cam­paign, and a wide-open cal­en­dar to freel­ance now that spend­ing num­bers have been set for the next two years. Ry­an has bound­less policy en­ergy and equally bound­less am­bi­tion. If Boehner needs or wants a new driver on im­mig­ra­tion, one tested by fire from the right, he may well choose Ry­an.

In­ter­est­ingly, Ry­an waded straight in­to the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate Monday on a Wis­con­sin ra­dio sta­tion, de­fin­ing the lim­its of ac­cept­able re­form.

“First we must have the bor­der se­cur­ity, and in­de­pend­ently veri­fied,” Ry­an told WTMJ in Mil­wau­kee (listen here.). “First we must have the in­teri­or en­force­ment like E-Veri­fy in place and in­de­pend­ently veri­fied be­fore the oth­er parts of the law that they want to go in­to place go in­to place,” he said. “So it’s not a ‘trust, hope, and prom­ise.’ It’s a ‘get what we want, veri­fy it’s there.’ Then the rest of the law can be triggered.”

Im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ad­voc­ates with ties to the White House see Ry­an’s out­line as more spe­cif­ic and en­force­able than the “trig­gers” in the Sen­ate im­mig­ra­tion bill. They in­ter­pret Ry­an call­ing for six or eight sep­ar­ate bills (the now-agreed upon piece­meal ap­proach), start­ing with bor­der se­cur­ity and in­teri­or en­force­ment fol­lowed by the oth­er com­pon­ents of re­form — leg­al­iz­a­tion, path to cit­izen­ship, ag­ri­cul­tur­al/sea­son­al work­ers, and the Dream Act. This pro­cess bears a strik­ing re­semb­lance to Tal­lent’s afore­men­tioned roadmap.

As for the be­ne­fits of passing im­mig­ra­tion re­form, Ry­an soun­ded bullish. “Guar­an­teed bor­der se­cur­ity, guar­an­teed in­teri­or en­force­ment, no am­nesty — then I think that’s pro­duct­ive. I think that’s in our in­terest. I think that’s good for our coun­try.”

These are not the words of a Re­pub­lic­an fear­ful of the in­tern­al or ex­tern­al polit­ics of im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Quite the con­trary. Ry­an held fast on the budget and he and Boehner are both still stand­ing, ar­gu­ably stronger than at any time since 2010. Amid the va­por trails and ex­haust of the hol­i­day sea­son’s mad rush out of Wash­ing­ton, what may have emerged is a new polit­ic­al dy­nam­ic in the House GOP, one that could au­gur well for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, Boehner, Ry­an, and even Obama.

And that’s no smoke and mir­rors.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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