Why Are Republicans Having So Much Trouble Passing An Immigration Bill?

Going off-script to mock John McCain again last night in South Carolina


And What’s In All These Proposed Bills We Keep Hearing About Anyway?


One of our most devoted readers sent us an email last week, pointing out that when all the various proposed immigration bills are discussed in the media, there’s next to no detail given about what’s in each one, what the problems/objections are, and why the only voice we hear is Trump’s. And that’s true: they generally get labeled with some shorthand characterization, and no more detail is given: “Hard-line”, “Compromise”, “Bipartisan”. We think a lot of the reason mainstream media doesn’t explain further or drill down is that every one of these bills has such a slim chance of passing, it’s not really worth the time. But it’s also not completely uninteresting, so we’re going to try to tackle it today.


First, there are a couple of issues that lay over everything:

  • Trump is a moving target. The President says he will support any legislation from House Republicans these days, but then he hints he won’t, or that he’s going to look at what they may produce and “make changes“. Remember also Trump at one time had cut a deal with Democratic leadership: DACA in exchange for full funding of his wall. He then started adding stuff. The most concretely Trump has laid it out was during the State of the Union Address in January, when he said in order for him to sign immigration legislation it would have to include “four pillars”: a DACA fix, and end to the green card lottery, and end to so-called “chain migration” (or family members being sponsored by family members who are already here), and of course “the wall”. But since then, that list has grown to at least include a fix to family separation at the border, and possibly radical changes to rules for seeking asylum.
  • The Koch Brothers are a big and under-reported factor. Because while they support Trump on some things–for instance those huge corporate tax cuts–on immigration they do not. While we disagree with the Koch’s on many things, unlike Trump they do have a coherent and consistent guiding philosophy, which in this case at least happens to dovetail with common sense. Unemployment in the U.S. is historically low. In order for the economy to keep growing, businesses need to continue to add workers. And they aren’t just looking for the Ph.D.’s and Nobel Prize winners Trump’s referring to when he says he wants to cut way back on legal immigration and make it “merit based.” The Koch Brothers, for instance, need a steady supply of reliable employees who will do dirty work for low pay at one of their many chemical plants. According to The Hill, they’ve even started spending money advertising against Trump’s immigration policies. So what does this have to do with Congress? While politicians are waking up to the fact that they need to come to Trump for juice if they want to win, many have long been aware of the fact that they need the Koch’s approval to get real money. Trump doesn’t really control that spigot. And that’s emboldened some Republicans to take a firmer stance in many cases on immigration. (It’s happening with trade wars too, as some Republicans who are not lame ducks are finally starting to stand up to Trump on that. Not surprisingly, the Koch’s are in favor of free markets and against Trump’s tariffs.) And in order to do that, they need to be secure in the knowledge they’ll still get the Koch money. That’s at least part of why, despite Trump blaming the lack of passage entirely on Democrats, Republicans haven’t supported any piece of Republican legislation enough to come close to passing it.


Now to the bills themselves:

  • Back in February, the Senate voted on 4 separate immigration bills, some of them Republican-only, some of them bipartisan. All of them failed. We won’t go into detail on each one of those, since they’re all long dead. If you want a refresher, Vox had a good round-up at the time. We will remind you that although Trump demanded the Senate change its rules to facilitate passage by a simple majority (as is the case in the House) and not 60 votes (as is currently the case in the Senate), none of the bills got anywhere close to even that simple majority, which in the Senate would be 51 votes. Meaning it wasn’t just Democrats not voting for them. The final tallies: 47-52, 45-54, 45-54 & 39-60.
  • Now the focus has shifted over to the House. And again, Trump is blaming Democrats exclusively for failure to pass. But as we’ve pointed out repeatedly, zero Democrats could support a House bill and it could still sail through on broad Republican support. But that’s not happening.
  • “The Hardline Bill” (aka the Goodlatte bill). This is the bill that was voted on and failed last week. It was sponsored by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte (who we keep thinking should be a candidate to be the next CEO of Starbucks). Nearly 40 Republicans voted against it, or 1 in 5 of every Republican in the House. And that was the difference-maker, not Democrats. The bill addressed each of Trump’s 4 “pillars”. On DACA (that’s the Obama era program Trump ended that allowed children who came into the country with their parents as undocumented immigrants to stay), it did not provide a path to citizenship, which hard-liners consider “amnesty” and therefore unacceptable even for people previously covered by DACA. Instead it offered renewable 3-year visas. So in that sense it was even stricter than what Trump’s been demanding. It gave Trump full funding for “the wall”.
  • “The Bipartisan Bill”. This is the bill that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan refused to bring to the floor, but House members came just two signatures away from forcing a vote anyway. Its “real” name is the “Uniting and Securing America Act” or “USA Act” (clever!). It was co-sponsored by Republican Representative Will Hurd of Texas, and Democrat Pete Aguilar of California. It would’ve given DACA recipients “the ability to be protected from deportation, work legally in the U.S., travel outside the country and apply to be a lawful permanent resident if they meet certain requirements.” The big problem with this bill is even though it spends a lot of money on extensive and very detailed border security, it does not give Trump his wall. As we keep saying, that’s the most important thing to him. That’s his visible legacy. So even if it’d passed the House and Senate, there’s no way the President ever would’ve signed it. Trump knows damn well he needs his $25-billion wall fully funded up front right now or he’ll never get it if Democrats happen to flip the House or Senate this fall. So far, Congress has only committed $1.6-billion.
  • The “Compromise” Bill (Which isn’t really a compromise unless you consider a compromise between Republicans and other Republicans to be a compromise, because it is a Republican-only bill). We’re kind of working backwards today, and this is the only bill that’s still alive. And it could be voted on in the House tomorrow. Which we were also told would happen yesterday, and last Friday, and last Thursday. This bill has a couple of major distinctions from the “hard-line” bill, even though Rep. Goodlatte also has a hand in it. It does offer a path to citizenship through DACA, although it’s a little unclear exactly how and what the restrictions would be. That’s a big hang-up for the “anti-amnesty” Far Right. It also gives Trump his full $25-billion for his wall. Most of the rest of the wrangling seems centered around requirements that U.S. businesses start using a system called “E-Verify”, that forces them to ensure anyone they’ve hired is legal to work in the U.S. Republicans in farm states are pushing for guarantees they’ll still be able to get a large number of visas for seasonal workers, especially if that requirement were to go into effect. That seems to have been worked out, but still might not be good enough to get the bill passed anyway. And it almost certainly wouldn’t pass in this form in the Senate.
  • So what we may end up with is simply a fix to family separation at the border as a stand-alone measure, or maybe not even.