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House GOP finds new ways to say 'no' on immigration

House Republicans say it is President Obama's fault if they don't pass immigration reform this year. Now Democrats are trying to call their bluff.
Immigration reform supporters cheer at a rally on the National Mall in Washington, Oct. 8, 2013.
Immigration reform supporters cheer at a rally on the National Mall in Washington, Oct. 8, 2013.

The time wasn’t right for immigration reform in the pre-Obama era. Republicans aren’t comfortable passing it in the Obama era. Now the post-Obama era isn’t looking so hot either.

Last week, Speaker John Boehner announced just days after releasing a set of principles for immigration reform that his members were reluctant to pass any legislation on the issue at all under President Obama, since they were concerned the White House would refuse to enforce its security provisions.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who co-sponsored a bipartisan immigration bill that passed in June, offered up a novel solution to Boehner’s dilemma on NBC’s Meet The Press: Pass immigration reform now, but delay its implementation until someone new is in the Oval Office.

“I think the rap against him that he actually won’t enforce the law is false—he’s deported more people than any other president," Schumer said. "But you could actually have the law start in 2017 without doing much violence to it.”

That idea went over like a lead balloon with the speaker’s office. "The suggestion is entirely impractical, since it would totally eliminate the president's incentive to enforce immigration law for the remainder of his term,” spokesman Michael Steel told NBC News.

The implication seems to be that Obama, who has presided over record-setting deportation rates, is only doing so now because there’s an immigration debate going on.

But Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, an influential voice in conservative policy circles, raised a different problem with the Schumer proposal to msnbc: The party’s concerns might not end with Obama.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen in our conference,” he said. “It’s not just that there’s a strong distrust of the president’s ability to function in good faith on this issue in light of what happened, but we don’t know who’s going to be president in 2017.”

To Republican Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, Schumer’s proposal was “bizarre” and “somewhat irresponsible” – but for the exact opposite reason Jordan laid out.

“I understand why a lot of folks are concerned and it's strictly on the border enforcement and interior enforcement, but we should be passing legislation based on what’s right for the country not who the current actors are, who’s in office,” he said.

His suggestion: Obama should request a border security bill alone from Congress, implement it this year, then come back and ask for reform. That’s a nonstarter for Democrats and the White House, largely because of their own trust gap. They don’t believe Republicans will ever deem the border secure enough – Congress has quintupled the size of the border patrol since 1993 and the Senate bill would double it again – to revisit the legalization issue.

Immigration activists, who are agitating for an immediate halt to deportations even before immigration reform passes, would probably be aghast at Schumer’s proposal if they thought it was serious. But the major advocacy groups tend to assume that Republican complaints about trust issues are a reverse-engineered excuse in case legislation dies this year rather than a substantive complaint to be addressed with the right policy. Under this reading, Schumer’s remarks does little more than call the House GOP’s bluff.

“The fact that Boehner is rejecting it out of hand reveals that the Republican blame game directed at Obama -- the president who has deported a record number of immigrants -- is but a lame excuse,” Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, said in an e-mail. “The Republicans can't get to yes because too many of their members oppose anything beyond deportation and border walls.”

Republican members of the House supportive of reform and immigration activists more focused on courting the right have identified Obama’s low standing with the party as a more legitimate hurdle. But they’re at least as concerned, if not more, that House Republicans will back off reform for political reasons: either because they think it will anger the base before the 2014 midterms, or that they should wait until 2016 when the Latino vote becomes more important, or that they can put it on ice until a Republican Senate and Republican president can tweak it to their liking and deny Democrats credit for passing it. 

The challenge, one not lost on national Republican strategists, is that the longer the Republican House waits for a Republican Senate and Republican president to pass immigration reform, the harder they make it to elect a Republican Senate and Republican president.