Bipartisan Deals Can Only Pass Inside a Narrow Window. Here Are the Dates.

If meaningful legislation moves at all, it may not happen until next year, after House Republicans learn whether they have primary challengers.

Window: It won't be open for long.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Oct. 17, 2013, 5 p.m.

While Con­gress now seems en­tirely at the mercy of its own in­tern­al dys­func­tion, there will come a time next year when, in the­ory at least, House Re­pub­lic­ans will be in the best po­s­i­tion to vote on di­vis­ive is­sues such as im­mig­ra­tion or maybe even a long-term budget deal.

The sweet spot should come in mid-June, when half the states will have con­duc­ted primary elec­tions and al­most all mem­bers rep­res­ent­ing the oth­ers will know wheth­er they face a primary chal­lenger. It also will be far enough away from the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion to in­su­late Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents from a con­ser­vat­ive back­lash if they bend on such is­sues as gov­ern­ment spend­ing or leg­al­iz­a­tion for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al GOP strategists, some of whom would not speak on the re­cord be­cause of the sens­it­iv­ity of the sub­ject.

The pro­ponents of this strategy have two goals. First, they want to neut­ral­ize in­terest groups like the Club for Growth that threaten to un­seat in­cum­bent GOP mem­bers who don’t toe the con­ser­vat­ive line. Second, they want to pass le­gis­la­tion that stands a chance of be­com­ing law in an elec­tion year. Wait­ing un­til sum­mer is the middle ground between the bullish Re­pub­lic­ans who want to act now on gov­ern­ment spend­ing, the debt ceil­ing, and im­mig­ra­tion, and cau­tious Re­pub­lic­ans who want to hold off un­til after the 2014 elec­tion.

Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., rep­res­ents the bullish camp. “I think it’s dan­ger­ous” to wait un­til the sum­mer, he said, par­tic­u­larly on im­mig­ra­tion. “You can al­ways find an ex­cuse. People who say, “˜Let’s wait un­til primary sea­son’ will say, “˜Let’s just wait un­til after the [gen­er­al] elec­tion.’ “

A Re­pub­lic­an strategist closely in­volved with House elec­tions rep­res­ents the cau­tious camp. “We would like not to do any­thing — CRs [con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tions], debt ceil­ing, im­mig­ra­tion — un­til after the 2014 elec­tions,” the strategist said.

A big-tick­et item such as im­mig­ra­tion will need Demo­crat­ic votes to pass, and that’s like cat­nip for primary chal­lengers. But Re­pub­lic­ans gauging next year’s le­gis­lat­ive land­scape say the in­flu­ence of primar­ies will be re­duced to al­most noth­ing later in the year. This sum­mer “win­dow” could al­low con­ser­vat­ives to think longer term about the fu­ture of their party — i.e., by vot­ing for an im­mig­ra­tion over­haul and ap­peal­ing to His­pan­ic voters — be­cause they know their seats are safe.

That makes June or Ju­ly the best time for the House to act on im­mig­ra­tion, par­tic­u­larly if GOP mem­bers have already voted on en­force­ment-only le­gis­la­tion, such as man­dat­ory elec­tron­ic veri­fic­a­tion of work­ers, be­fore tack­ling the weight­i­er is­sue of a path to cit­izen­ship. While such a strategy makes Demo­crat­ic lead­ers nervous, Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez, D-Ill., who fre­quently bucks his own party on im­mig­ra­tion, ac­know­ledges that con­ser­vat­ive en­force­ment bills will be the only way for the Re­pub­lic­an-led House to go for­ward.

As for the debt ceil­ing, a Feb­ru­ary dead­line as set by this week’s Re­id-Mc­Con­nell agree­ment looms as par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­at­ic, set­ting up a show­down in the near term. House Re­pub­lic­ans who al­low a debt-ceil­ing hike that doesn’t in­clude enough con­ces­sions from Demo­crats will likely irk the right-wing base and po­ten­tially lure primary chal­lengers. Yet House mem­bers in most states won’t even know if they face a primary fight by early Feb­ru­ary; only eight states have fil­ing dead­lines in Janu­ary and Feb­ru­ary.

It helps slightly that one of the states with an early primary is Texas, whose 24 Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers make up the largest GOP del­eg­a­tion in the House. Those law­makers will at least know their primary status in Janu­ary, when fil­ings for chal­lengers are due. But the primary elec­tion is March 4, which doesn’t help them if they face a tough debt-ceil­ing vote. It would take just a few House mem­bers nervous about ag­grav­at­ing the con­ser­vat­ive base to gum up whatever fisc­al deal comes out of bi­par­tis­an budget talks.

For con­ser­vat­ive pur­ists, that’s ex­actly the point. They con­sider their ad­vocacy for the fisc­al hard line a gift to Re­pub­lic­ans who want to keep their seats and avoid vot­ing on di­vis­ive is­sues such as im­mig­ra­tion. “You don’t go against the base that you need to turn out for you,” said Dan Holler, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for Her­it­age Ac­tion, the polit­ic­al wing of the con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Found­a­tion.

Re­pub­lic­ans who want to work with Demo­crats in­sist that the hard-line groups have a loud bark and a weak bite. But that’s not al­ways ob­vi­ous early in the elec­tion cycle. “The fear of be­ing primar­ied is really over­blown, but it’s be­ing very ef­fect­ively over­blown,” said Re­becca Tal­lent, a former chief of staff for Mc­Cain who now works at the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter.

Un­til the sum­mer, strategists say House Re­pub­lic­ans should play small ball and move to top­ics such as school choice, flex­ible work time, and whit­tling away at Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law. School choice (al­tern­ately phrased as “equal op­por­tun­ity for edu­ca­tion”) and flex-time are at­tract­ive is­sues to wo­men voters, whom the GOP sorely needs. An ad­ded bo­nus is that while uni­ons gen­er­ally op­pose those pro­pos­als, most Amer­ic­ans sup­port them.

Glitches in Obama’s health care law will be a con­tinu­al gift for Re­pub­lic­ans, even if the House has to shift to smal­ler at­tacks on the stat­ute rather than this year’s re­peated at­tempts at a full re­peal. There is also ripe fod­der for Re­pub­lic­an voters in in­tel­li­gence re­form, which could draw at­ten­tion to the weekly rev­el­a­tions about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sur­veil­lance of cit­izens’ email ac­counts and phone re­cords.

Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, the South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an who sup­ports both tough im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment and a path to cit­izen­ship, said wait­ing un­til June for a House im­mig­ra­tion vote could “re­lease the pres­sure” on some mem­bers who are wor­ried about primary chal­lenges. But, he ad­ded, there is no point in talk­ing about that kind of tim­ing when Con­gress is en­meshed in an on­go­ing fisc­al stan­doff. “I don’t see how you can do any­thing big when you’re sit­ting in the middle of this mess,” he said.

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