WASHINGTON (AFP) – Even in hopelessly divided Washington, everyone is agreed, something must be done about immigration reform — the big ticket political issue of the year.
But as often in the treacherous ways of the U.S. capital, what the power brokers say may disguise reality rather than clarify it.
“Inaction is not an option,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“This is a problem that demands addressing,” said Republican Senator John McCain Thursday.
“Speaker Boehner and the Republican leadership realize that doing nothing is not an option,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
And Boehner himself said: “a vast majority of our members do believe that we have to wrestle with this problem.”
So does the sudden outbreak of bipartisan agreement herald a breakthrough in the stodgy political inertia?
The agreement on action to fix what everyone believes is a “broken” immigration system is more accurately a smokescreen to disguise the fact there is no consensus on exactly what to do.
A bipartisan coalition passed a massive immigration bill in the Senate, which includes a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, and a $46 billion border security effort.
For President Barack Obama, the bill would offer a historic bauble for a second term legacy that is worryingly thin — and would honor promises that won millions of Hispanic votes in 2008 and 2012.
National Republican leaders meanwhile know that blocking immigration reform — a project dear to increasingly important Hispanic voters — could hurt in presidential elections for a generation.
That is why Republican starlet Senator Marco Rubio took the perilous decision to work for the reform bill, despite the risk of alienating the conservative grass roots.
Ironically, a majority of votes in favor of the Senate bill seems to exist in the House.
“At this moment, if votes were called for comprehensive immigration reform there are more than 218 votes,” Democratic congressman Luis Gutierrez said.
A Huffington Post analysis pointed out that if all 201 Democrats back the bill in the House, only 20 or so majority Republicans would be needed to secure passage.
But the political calculations are decisive — such a solution would likely splinter Boehner’s already tenuous hold on his restive caucus.
So the Speaker says he will not pass any immigration bill, without a majority of Republicans voting in favor — meaning around 118 members would have to back reform.
But the political logic of doing so is lost on Republicans from solidly conservative districts with few Hispanic voters, where the idea of “amnesty” is reviled.
National political considerations also pale for Republicans who fear nothing more than a nominating challenge from the right.
The White House is working hard to up the political pain for Republicans should they block the bill, stressing its economic and moral benefits.
In effect, the argument is a preview of a 2014 mid-term election campaign theme for Obama, should immigration reform fail.
“It would be a shame if this important piece of legislation … would be blocked because of concerns by some House members in the Republican Party about primary challenges from the far right,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Some observers still believe reform is possible — even if it falls short of the ambitious plan Obama wants.
Insulating themselves from the charge they are doing nothing, Republican House leaders are taking up immigration not in the comprehensive form favored by the Senate, but step-by-step.
Many House Republicans want “forward motion” on immigration reform, but “we are very anti-comprehensive, we’re all about piece-meal,” conservative congressman John Fleming said.
Smaller bills on border security, visas for foreign workers and even the status of children brought to America by the parents illegally are possible.
If that is all Congress eventually produces, Obama would be left with the tough political choice.
Would the president veto incremental progress on the grounds it does not include the holy grail of a path to citizenship?
Some reform advocates are cheered by signs that powerful Republican congressman Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee and a possible future national candidate, is working for a compromise.
Ryan, who has impeccable conservative credentials, was said by the Washington Post to be morally committed to ending the purgatory of undocumented immigrants.
Still, backers fret that with little action expected before a congressional recess in August, reform hopes could fizzle.
So the appearance of progress may be as important as concrete action and explain upbeat talk despite grim omens.
As Carney cryptically put it Thursday: “when you’re moving forward, you know, the momentum builds, and we’re moving forward.”
Photo Credit: AFP/Saul Loeb