Despite Early Success, Immigration Bill Faces Uncertain Path Forward

If immigration reform's prospects are bright in the Senate, they remain murky overall.

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Immigrants wait to become American citizens ahead of a naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in New York City, on May 17, 2013.

Success is rare enough in the Senate that a taste of it can make even the most seasoned legislators a little cocky. The week after supporters of immigration reform steered their bipartisan bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee, Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested the package would sail through the Senate when it hits the floor next month. “It’s certainly going to pass the Senate,” he said. “The Republicans can no longer stop this.”

Rounding up a filibuster-proof 60 votes may prove tougher than Reid anticipates; allies say they’re not there yet. But even if Senate Republicans can’t scupper the bill, their counterparts in the GOP-controlled House can. And they won’t go gently. When the Senate committee debating the legislation sent it to the floor largely unscathed, House Republican leaders marked the occasion by dashing any emerging hopes that overhauling the broken U.S. immigration system might be easier than expected. “We will not simply take up and accept a bill that is emerging in the Senate if it passes,” wrote a passel of House leaders, headed by Speaker John Boehner. “Rather, through regular order, the House will work its will and produce its own legislation.”

The missive was a reminder of how messy the process will be. If immigration reform’s prospects are bright in the Senate, they remain murky overall. The easiest way for the bill to pass would be for the House to take up the Senate bill, which could sneak through with the support of a majority of Democrats and a rump faction of Republicans. In recent months, that’s been the model for passing big-ticket legislation, such as the New Year’s Day tax compromise to avert the fiscal cliff. Members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight are hoping that generating some 70 votes in the upper chamber will apply enough pressure that House Republicans will be forced to go along — or face a backlash at the ballot box.

But since even the House Republicans open to an immigration deal say they won’t rubberstamp the Senate’s measure, the path to the President’s desk is likely to be a laborious one. If the House passes its own legislation, each chamber would have to appoint members to a conference committee charged with hashing out the differences. Republicans would harp on concerns about the legislation’s cost, as well as inadequate border security and enforcement. Democrats would balk if the path to citizenship gets too onerous, and might decide they prefer to keep immigration as a political cudgel rather than pass a watered-down bill. As anyone who remembers the failure of the deficit-reduction “supercommittee” can tell you, there’s plenty of risk in these kinds of high-stakes, bicameral poker games.

At the moment, Boehner’s problem is he doesn’t yet have a hand to play. As the Senate’s Gang of Eight works to whip colleagues, the House negotiators charged with crafting their own bipartisan blueprint are struggling simply to agree on terms. Despite months of regular meetings, progress has been fitful. The eight-member group blew through a recent deadline Boehner imposed, and intermittent reports of a pact have proven premature. But despite “a few precipice points in the past few weeks,” a deal remains within reach, says a House Democratic aide close to the negotiations, who estimated that the agreement would come after the Senate bill hits the floor the week of June 10, but before its final passage. The pressure to get something done is acute for Republicans. Without a legislative vehicle to send to conference, they would be forced to swallow the Senate deal or get battered by immigration advocates for scuttling the best shot at comprehensive reform in a generation.

Aides say the outline emerging in the House is more conservative than the Senate version. It has a more onerous path to citizenship (15 years instead of the Senate’s 13), stiffer enforcement provisions and restrictions on the healthcare benefits immigrants can receive. The healthcare issue is the primary hurdle, according to a House Democratic aide, although the two parties are also split on a solution to the issue of guest workers — a major piece of the Senate’s measure.

The House could also pursue a piecemeal approach, divvying a sprawling bill into a few smaller chunks that are largely acceptable even to rock-ribbed conservatives. Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced measures to expand the eVerify and agricultural guest-worker programs. That legislation could then be used as a vehicle to conference with the Senate, who could tack on the citizenship provisions that are essential to Democrats.e

This array of uncertainties is why the bill’s smooth journey so far doesn’t have opponents of comprehensive immigration reform quaking. “It’s gone as expected,” says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation For American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates for reduced immigration levels and opposes the bill. The markup process in the Senate Judiciary Committee “was kind of kabuki theater,” he says. “The Gang of Eight tightly controlled all aspects of the debate.”

Immigration-reform advocates are heartened that a groundswell of opposition has yet to materialize among the conservative grassroots. There have been no raucous town halls during this week’s recess, no protests drawing widespread media coverage. A coalition of conservative leaders released a letter blasting the Senate bill as “bloated and unwieldy along the lines of Obamacare,” but most of the major conservative advocacy groups are supporting the effort or staying on the sidelines. Opponents concede that supporters have been disciplined and shrewd. When Reid said the passage in the Senate will be “pretty easy,” he may have been right.

But it is early yet. Controversies over the IRS, Benghazi and Department of Justice probes of reporters have overshadowed immigration so far. That is about to change. “We’re at the beginning stages here,” Mehlman says. “The real test is going to come as it hits the Senate floor.” And it gets tougher from there.

MORE: The Made-Up Numbers Dominating the Immigration Debate