Published February 18, 2013
“[Marco Rubio] says it’s ‘dead on arrival’ if it’s proposed. Well let’s make sure that it doesn’t have to be proposed.”
-- White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough on “This Week” discussing a leaked draft of the president’s immigration legislation.
A toxic emission from the White House over the weekend may be the beginning of the end for hopes of ending a decade of political punting on illegal immigration.
Things had been progressing remarkably well. The initial excitement and the subsequent backlash that followed the announcement of a blueprint by a bipartisan group of senators had died down and lawmakers were about the boring business of crafting a bill.
The “Gang of Eight” was an immediate sensation in a town so soaked in partisan acrimony and so dysfunctional that not even the simplest, most necessary things can be accomplished. Two moderate Republicans, two conservative Republicans, two moderate Democrats and two liberal Democrats (including the blue team’s only Hispanic member of the Senate) crafted the outline of the deal, doing what all of the talking heads say Congress should: work across the aisle to address big problems.
There was considerable backlash on the right from conservatives who felt sure that they were being set up for a hornswaggling in which illegal immigrants get amnesty now and promised safeguards against future border jumpers never materialize.
But Sen. Marco Rubio did what Sen. John McCain didn’t do the last time around on the subject and faced critics head on. Rubio paid his respects and answered questions directly from Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and others.
Conservatives still have deep concerns about how an amnesty would be arranged – the timing, conditions, etc. – but have mostly come around on the point that mass deportations and arrests are not possible. Republicans ran an immigration hardliner for president last year and have little to show for their efforts. So at the very least, the members of the red team now understand that the issue is a loser for their side.
Behind the scenes, senators were busy with the arduous process of crafting a compromise to the compromise with skeptical House Republicans. Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s remarks on the subject indicated that the work would certainly be slow but that there was hope for a big bill this year.
President Obama at first seemed eager to torpedo the legislation.
His press secretary took the opportunity of the announcement of the initial deal to remind prideful Republican lawmakers that it was the president who deserved credit for the deal, even if he hadn’t been part of it. He had created the atmosphere, according to Jay Carney, that made the deal possible. One can argue that by winning the election with a pro-amnesty campaign, Obama did change the atmosphere, but so what? If you want something done in Washington, never force your adversaries to kiss your ring (or anything else) in the process.
It looked certain that Obama was going to come in and tip the whole thing over. With conservatives very carefully and tentatively trying to broker a truce in the border wars that have so damaged their party since 2007, Obama making demands for a permissive, rapid amnesty program would be a disaster.
But bowing to pressure from the Hispanic Caucus of his own party, Obama opted to not be “bold” and instead sat on his own bill and make some general remarks about immigration. But he threatened future destructive boldness if lawmakers did not speedily produce a bill.
Obama acknowledged how counterproductive his participation in the legislation would be, but said he would come in and start punishing Republicans with accusations of intransigence and xenophobia if the law didn’t make it too his desk fast.
It would be a near miracle if the Senate had a completed, viable, bipartisan bill passed before its August recess. That would make passage of a final bill before the Thanksgiving break possible. By congressional standards, especially in a divided Congress, that would be very fast for such large legislation.
But Obama only gave them 18 days.
The White House leaked its immigration legislation over the weekend, revealing a plan so liberal that it wouldn’t even likely be able to get 51 votes in the Democratic Senate. Rapid amnesty and a special pathway to citizenship for those already in the country illegally are not going to be part of any law that passes in the Congress.
Obama had been unusually gracious on the subject in his State of the Union address last week, not engaging in the hectoring and shaming that he normally applies to the immigration debate.
But the Saturday leak of the plan and the Sunday threats from his chief of staff suggest that Obama’s self-restraint is already exhausted.
And this brings us back to where we began on immigration. Obama would rather have no bill and the chance to punish Republicans than compromise legislation that doesn’t meet his transformative goals.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.