What is it about “compromise” that President Obama doesn’t understand? Is it that he and Democrats would have to give up something—perhaps numerous things—to reach an agreement with Republicans? Or is a bipartisan deal unappealing simply because Obama and Democrats would have to share the credit with Republicans?
The issue this time is immigration. And Obama has resumed his familiar role not as compromise-maker but as compromise-wrecker. He spurned bipartisanship on the stimulus and Obamacare and twice raised his demands so high that a grand bargain with Republicans on taxes and spending was impossible, first in 2011, then in 2012.
Now Obama is confronted by a compromise on overhauling the immigration system that’s already been reached by eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans. In a speech last week, Obama said the agreement is “very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on.” Yet he’s dissatisfied.
The president wants more. He would tilt the deal in a Democratic direction by putting the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country instantly on a path to American citizenship. Border security? That comes later (if at all). If Obama prevails, the compromise will be shattered and odds on passage of immigration reform reduced to near zero.
That outcome, by the way, would please the zealous bloc of conservatives whose battle cry is “Keep Illegal Immigrants Illegal”—in other words, maintain the unstable status quo, or worse. And it would squander a rare opportunity to break the impasse on immigration with a deal that treats illegals fairly and decently and, better still, is good for America.
The Senate agreement is a true compromise. Both sides gave up a lot, and, should it pass in some form or other, neither will be able to claim exclusive victory. It’s win-win, which is what a compromise is supposed to be.
The eight senators last week issued a set of principles for rewriting immigration laws, and a bill is expected in March. The aim is to pass the legislation by the August recess. The House would take up the immigration issue in the fall.
The compromise would do three important things. First, illegal immigrants would be given legal status immediately. They wouldn’t be eligible for federal benefits, but they wouldn’t be deported either. Second, they would gain green cards and be allowed to apply for citizenship in 8 to 12 years—after a special commission that includes state and local officials has certified America’s southern border as secure. And third, the newly legalized would go to the end of the immigration line (shortened by cleaning out its backlog).
It’s a long and tedious process. But the legislation won’t be drafted by a few senators in secret meetings, then whisked directly to the floor. That’s the way Senate majority leader Harry Reid normally operates. This time, so-called regular order will be followed—hearings, mark-ups, and debates, a Senate-House conference, a bill on the president’s desk.
What’s surprising is the breadth of the concessions that produced the compromise. The four Democrats—Bob Menendez (New Jersey), Michael Bennet (Colorado), Richard Durbin (Illinois), and Charles Schumer (New York)—yielded on a guest worker program, which Democrats usually oppose. They accepted a “trigger,” based on quantifiable improvements in border security, to clear the path to citizenship. They yielded on federal benefits, Obamacare included, which the new residents won’t get. And they agreed to increase the number of highly skilled and educated workers given green cards. All that, plus billions more to enhance border security.
Republicans had to accept, finally, that the 11 million could become citizens despite having broken the law upon entering the country. True, it’s a two-step process that may take 15 years or so, but it arrives at the same place simple “amnesty” would. Even before that, the “undocumented workers” would be legal residents of the United States. Republicans also accepted the Dream Act, which gives special status to immigrants brought here as children.
The four Republicans—Marco Rubio (Florida), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and John McCain and Jeff Flake (both Arizona)—are veterans of immigration reform struggles. They knew what they were doing. Rubio told Rush Limbaugh that if the insistence on securing the border were removed, he’d vote against the bill.
As for Obama, he had a choice. “He can either decide that he wants to be part of the solution or he can decide he wants to be part of a political issue and try to trigger a bidding war,” Rubio said. The next day, Obama took the political tack.
It won’t lead to success. Obama would create a freeway to citizenship from day one. That’s a poison pill for Republicans. Scrapping the guest worker program would also alienate Republicans, the business community, and those conservatives who regard it correctly as an alternative to illegal border-crossing.
Obama didn’t talk about guest workers in his speech. But Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, was sitting in front of him in Las Vegas when he spoke. Organized labor has long opposed the program and was instrumental in killing it in the 1960s.
The president’s motives are suspicious. In 2007, he backed a bipartisan bill, while voting for amendments certain to scare off Republicans. One was to kill the guest worker provision after five years. It passed by one vote. It wasn’t the only reason the bill ultimately died, but it was a factor.
Now Obama is demanding immigration reform be speeded up or he’ll unleash his own proposal. Coming from a president who promised to tackle immigration in his first year, then waited until after his reelection, this requires political moxie. He has plenty of that. Being accused of hypocrisy won’t faze him either.
Should Congress balk at his timetable, Obama is no doubt ready to blame Republicans. And he’ll blame them if Democrats adopt his recommendations, bipartisanship vanishes, and the legislation collapses. He may even blame Republicans if the bipartisan compromise becomes law. A better bill was available, he’ll argue, and Republicans blocked it.
Republicans needn’t worry. Nor should they expect Hispanic voters to swoon over their part in reforming immigration. Credit will come, over time, from having done the right thing for the right reason. Eleven million immigrants, having come to America to decide their own destiny in life, will recognize who and what made it possible.