Immigration advocates bank on budget deal to rescue overhaul

December 07, 2013

Few in Washington want to see House and Senate negotiators strike a budget deal more than advocates for immigration reform.

Their interest is not so much in the policy as the timing. The unending fiscal battles have repeatedly stolen the spotlight from immigration in the House, and the government shutdown in October sapped the legislative push of both time and political good will.

With Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) taking steps to revive immigration reform, advocates now see one remaining window for action in the early part of 2014, before election season begins.

But that opportunity will be lost, lawmakers and aides say, if yet another budget fight erupts in January and February.

Current federal funding runs out on Jan. 15, but House and Senate leaders are hoping to finalize a modest budget deal before lawmakers head home for the holidays.

An agreement would clear the legislative calendar in the New Year, and combined with an expected push from President Obama in his State of the Union address, immigration reform could have the moment its advocates have been waiting for.

“If some of those obstacles could get out of the way, I do think there is very much a desire to get something done, to put it behind them, to come up with a good answer,” said Tamar Jacoby, a Republican advocate who is president of ImmigrationWorks USA.

Jacoby said the support for some action on immigration in the House exists “way into the depths of the Republican conference, not just the leadership and not just the people who sound like liberals on this.”

“So I do think clearing away some of those hurdles could allow that ferment to come to the fore,” she said.

Yet timing is not the only obstacle in the House GOP. While several narrow bills have emerged from the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, party leaders need a proposal addressing the legal status of undocumented immigrants that can pass with a combination of Republican and Democratic votes.

Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) are working on separate legalization proposals, but it isn’t clear whether either can win the necessary support.

And while a fresh push by Obama in the State of the Union could thrust immigration reform back atop the headlines, a hectoring speech could backfire among Republicans who deeply distrust the president.

House Republicans have taken note in recent weeks that Obama has said he is open to the piecemeal legislative approach that Boehner has demanded, as long as the group of bills addresses all major aspects of reform. But many in the GOP still believe that Obama wants to use immigration as a political cudgel in 2014 rather than make significant concessions to win passage of legislation.

“My advice to Republicans would be to ignore the president,” said former Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.), a conservative member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration task force who is advocating for the House to act on the issue.

While a budget agreement would remove one hurdle, it would not end another major political fight that is capturing the attention of both GOP legislators and the media: ObamaCare.

Republicans have latched onto the troubled implementation of the president’s healthcare law, and many lawmakers argue it would be politically foolish for the GOP to turn to a divisive issue and take attention away from problems that are damaging Democrats.

“As long as that is kind of alive [as an issue], that’s going to take up a lot of oxygen,” Jacoby said.

Eliseo Medina, a former labor leader who fasted on water only for 22 days to protest the House’s inaction on immigration, said Boehner could bring up legislation any time he wants.

“Our campaign has not been driven by the legislative calendar, it has been driven by the urgency of the issue,” Medina said.

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