There’s No Good Time for the GOP on Immigration

by Stuart Rothenberg February 27, 2014 · 1:15 PM EST

GOP leaders on Capitol Hill apparently have already decided to punt rather than push ahead with their own immigration proposal, but that hasn’t stopped the chatter from the sidelines, especially from those who don’t like the leadership’s decision.

Liberal columnist Greg Sargent and conservative icon George Will both agree that Republicans are crazy to put immigration reform off until after the midterms.

Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza laid out the political argument for Republicans not kicking the can down the road on immigration in his Feb. 9 article, “Why Republicans Shouldn’t Wait to Pass Immigration Reform.”

It’s a reasonable case, based on the timing of the dynamic of the 2016 presidential contest, the nation’s changing demographics and the GOP’s intense dislike of President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act.

From a policy point of view, immigration reform is absolutely crucial. The country is home to more than 11 million illegal immigrants — they broke the law to get here and are not merely “undocumented” — who use government services, drive on the country’s roads and work in a variety of jobs (some of which Americans won’t do, apparently).

Not dealing with that reality merely maintains the status quo, and most responsible people want to take steps to protect the border and yet find a humane way to deal with the people here, some of whom have children who are U.S. citizens.

So, federal action is imperative. In fact, it should have happened already.

And from a purely political point of view, Republicans need to get on the right side of Hispanics — and all voters who see the party as intolerant and uninviting — which means addressing immigration in a way that is both serious and compassionate.

The question for the GOP is only about timing.

Those who want congressional Republicans to take up the issue now argue that 2015 will offer Republicans a more hostile environment because the party’s 2016 hopefuls will be pulled to the right by the presidential campaign, and Democrats will have a disincentive to compromise with the GOP. Given that, they say, Republicans must act now.

That may indeed be the case, but it puts the cart before the horse. As one Republican strategist said to me recently, “It’s nice to plan for the future, but we’ve got to get through the next 10 months before we worry about 2015.”

Nobody can be certain what 2015 will look like, but we have a pretty good idea how 2014 is shaping up. Republicans are likely to have a good election, with the party no worse than even money right now to gain the six seats it needs to win a Senate majority.

An immigration fight this year would be very nasty, with conservatives opposed to a compromise using every option at their disposal to stop legislation. The word “bloodletting” comes to mind.

The national media would play up the division within the GOP, giving full voice to the angriest and least tolerant elements of the party. The fight inside the Republican Party would be much nastier than previous fights over the government shutdown or the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

And Democrats wouldn’t sit idly by. They’d jump on Republicans, too, portraying the party as a collection of tea party extremists and mean-spirited conservatives at war with itself.

Supporters of dealing with immigration reform immediately pooh-pooh the battle, arguing that after a fight of a couple of months, everything would return to normal. Republicans would eventually refocus on the evils of the Affordable Care Act, rallying conservatives against Obama. A GOP civil war over immigration reform, they say, wouldn’t affect the 2014 midterms, as if they have perfect knowledge of what the fight and fallout would look like.

But it isn’t clear that the bitterness of the fight would pass so quickly, or that the fight would not do serious damage to the party’s prospects for 2014.

Moreover, taking up immigration reform wouldn’t guarantee a deal with congressional Democrats or the White House, unless, of course, Senate Republicans and Speaker John A. Boehner are willing to take any deal, no matter the price. And that price could change during the discussion, particularly if Democrats decide that playing hardball is an increasingly attractive option later this year.

What happens if ultimately unsuccessful negotiations stretch out for months, a deal never gets done, and Republicans are blamed for the impasse?

Republicans are deeply divided over immigration, and nobody can be sure about the fallout from a GOP civil war in the spring and summer of 2014. Even enacting some sort of immigration reform, such as legalization without citizenship, isn’t likely to benefit the GOP in 2014 or even in 2016.

Republicans who choose to ignore the changing nature of the population and the electorate are making a huge mistake. But timing is everything in politics, and while the future is always uncertain, the political risks of tackling immigration reform in 2014 are much, much greater than the possible benefits in 2016.