The Republican demand that immigration reform be done in a piecemeal fashion rather than in a comprehensive bill got a major boost after President Obama indicated yesterday he would consider switching to that approach. According to the LA Times:
After months of insisting the House should take up the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in June, President Obama changed tactics Thursday and said he might consider GOP proposals to overhaul separate parts of the immigration system.
In remarks at the White House, Obama hinted that he was no longer tied to the Senate bill, the elaborate product of months of intense bipartisan negotiations, to achieve what he has called a major priority for his second term.
Obama instead signaled that he might consider a package of smaller bills, if necessary, as long as they provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country without legal status.
"If House Republicans have new and different additional ideas on how we should move forward, then we want to hear them. I'll be listening," Obama told several dozen pro-reform activists from labor, business and religious groups.
Here's how it might play out. The Republicans already have five immigration bills that have passed in committee - agricultural guest workers, E-Verify, the SAFE Act, skilled workers and border security. They have at least another half dozen in the development stage including legalization bills and a broad guest worker bill. If they all passed, they would cover a substantial portion of the subjects covered in the Senate's single bill. The Senate could meet the GOP demand for piecemeal legislating by breaking it's bill up and separately passing new bills that are matched up to the House bills.
I've heard comments publicly as well as behind the scenes where Republicans in the House are attacking the idea of conferencing with the Senate if the bill they're conferencing with is S. 744. When asked why they have such a problem with the Senate bill, it often comes down to being upset with the Senate's path to citizenship approach for legalized individuals. And while that concern could very well be addressed in a conference committee over S. 744 and the House bills, there's also politics at play where House members want to be the drivers of immigration lawmaking. Switching to a piecemeal structure for immigration reform would allow the House Republicans to claim a victory over the Senate since their bills would dictate the agenda of the conference.
The President said he would support piecemeal legislating if the GOP includes a path to citizenship. In conversations with GOP staffers, I believe the GOP will likely permit legalized individuals to pursue green cards through existing paths rather than in the new category created by S. 744. The key will be figuring out how to get everyone processed in a reasonable time frame since existing green card quotas are clearly inadequate to absorb this population. But there are ways to do this and we'll have to see what is in the bill that the GOP decides to take up on legalization. If the GOP can come up with a reasonable solution, then a deal could very well be struck.
I hope the Democrats in the House and Senate don't reflexively reject the piecemeal approach. They need to keep their eyes on the prize and not get hung up on the process. If they can get 75% of what they want by going piecemeal, that's a lot better than rolling the dice on the Democrats eventually getting control of the House and getting a better bill. If you poll the immigrant communities in this country (as well as the general public), they're likely to be open to a pragmatic, compromise-oriented approach. Many advocacy groups will have a hard time swallowing this, but there is nothing sacrosanct about fixing every problem in one bill. Get what you can now and continue to work to improve the system in future Congresses.