The two-year bipartisan budget deal passed by the House Thursday night potentially will do more than just dispel the atmosphere of chronic crisis in Washington, which has driven Congress' approval rating to record lows. The Capitol stage is now set for an even bigger bipartisan achievement: Immigration reform.
The immigration issue was set to come to a head last fall, after immigration advocates ran circles around the Tea Party during the August recess to whip up support for the bipartisan Senate bill. While Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was resistant to the Senate’s comprehensive approach, he could not completely snub public pressure and promised the House would take action.
But instead of immigration, the fall season gave us the Syrian crisis, the government shutdown, and the HealthCare.gov botch, all of which demanded media attention that deprived immigration activists of the ability to maximize grassroots pressure. Momentum appeared to stall. The Hill even ran a two-part series in mid-November called "How Immigration Died."
But a funny thing happened two weeks after that obituary: President Obama publicly accepted Boehner's position that the House pass a series of piecemeal immigration bills instead of a single comprehensive bill like the Senate’s. Obama removed a political roadblock, putting the burden on Boehner to either follow through on his own pledge or shoulder all the political consequences for failure.
Boehner may not be eager to force his party to vote on an issue that divides its members, but neither does he want Republicans to take the blame for inaction and lose an entire generation of Latino voters.
A few days later, Boehner surprised Washington by hiring a new immigration policy aide from the Bipartisan Policy Center who supports what Democrats insist on but what many Republicans resist: A pathway to citizenship for the currently undocumented.
This week’s deal is another signal that congressional leaders are ready to close the curtains on the budget kabuki and bring immigration back to center stage. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who negotiated the budget deal, already has made clear his support for reform that includes a pathway to citizenship, and has an interest in lowering the political temperature through this agreement. In turn, his negotiating partner Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) made sure to point out that the reduced tensions should help get immigration done.
Also of note, Boehner raised eyebrows this week by lashing out at conservative groups that opposed the budget deal before it was announced. After declaring they have "lost all credibility," Boehner was asked at a press conference if he wanted them to "stand down." He coldly responded, "I don't care what they do."
The public display of anger by the normally poker-faced speaker suggests he is less inclined to bow to those on his right flank after they drove the GOP into the shutdown ditch, which should free Boehner up to compromise on immigration. In fact, prominent conservative pundit Erick Erickson fretted on Twitter, "Is Boehner picking this fight with conservatives to lay battle lines for the immigration fight?"
Congress doesn’t have a lot of time left. The deeper we get into the 2014 campaign season, the more the two parties will be focused on drawing blood, not cutting deals.
But they certainly have until the spring, when filing deadlines for primary challengers begin to expire, reducing far-right, anti-immigrant pressure on incumbent Republicans inclined to deal.
Skepticism and cynicism have clouded the immigration reform effort for months. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the actions of Boehner and Ryan this month suggest there is a will.