Yawning at the Supermajority

Will the House even care if the immigration bill wins 70 votes in the Senate?

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 20, 2013.
House Speaker John Boehner

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Last night, in the runup to a final vote on immigration reform, the Senate passed a Republican-led amendment that would add new border security measures and fund 20,000 more border guards, four times the number proposed in previous Republican amendments. Bill supporters believe that the amendment makes it more likely the final bill will win 70 votes, and that in turn would put pressure on the House to pass it, too.

Three days earlier, I’d asked Rep. Luis Gutierrez about this plan. The buoyant would-be dealmaker was talking to activists at the annual lefty Netroots Nation convention. Was he on board with the Senate scheme? No, he wasn’t.

“Their bill is going to pass with more than 70 votes,” said Gutierrez. “It’s going to pass at a huge price. Look: Diversity visas went. Siblings went. I didn’t get to negotiate any of that with my Republican counterparts—they looked at me and they said, you already gave that up! What am I supposed to tell them, I’ll give them 20,000 more border guards? There was very little room to negotiate, and there was no pressure on the House of Representatives.”

The problem with the theory is that there really isn’t any pressure on House Republicans. Late last year, the Gang of Eight senators gathered in a Senate TV studio and promised to craft some sort of immigration bill. These were heady times, with pundits predicting as many as 90 Senate votes for an immigration bill, because of course Republicans had to win back Hispanic voters and of course this was the way to do it. By June, the Gang members were saying that “70 votes”—probably every Democrat and 15 Republicans—would have to vote for their bill to give it a zipline into the House.

Democrats are finally starting to ask whether that’s true. Why would any House Republican care about a vote total in the Senate? From time to time, yes, a Senate supermajority will act first on a compromise bill, but that’s almost always one forced upon the Congress by duress, disappointing everyone. The fiscal cliff deal, the debt limit deal, the tax limit deal, all of these followed the “supermajority trickle-down” theory.

What’s the difference between those bills and an immigration bill? Crisis. Immigration reform moves through the House only if Republicans fear the consequences of stalling it. In November, after Barack Obama managed to beat them again, conservatives really did fear what would happen if they didn’t cut into the nonwhite vote. That fear is ebbing.

You can see the signs if you watch Sen. Marco Rubio. In the first months of 2013, Rubio started calling into conservative talk shows to make a talking point–heavy pitch for immigration reform. The hosts went along with it. “You are recognizing reality,” nodded Rush Limbaugh. I followed Rubio around a talk radio convention and watched him humble half a dozen second-rate hosts. They didn’t know how to attack the bill.

They do now. Yesterday, as they fought against an amendment slopping even more border security onto the immigration bill, Senate Republicans made two arguments. One: They’d only had “a weekend” to read the 110-page amendment. “They’re triple spaced pages!” insisted Sen. Bob Corker, one of the authors. “Any middle school student in Tennessee or Alabama could read this amendment in 20 minutes.” But Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz reminded each other of the vote on the Affordable Care Act, another time they were asked to push something through in a hurry, without gaming out all the provisions. “The majority rushed through a complex bill so no one would know what’s in it!” drawled Sen. Jeff Sessions.

Two: They don’t think this bill will “secure the border,” and neither does their base. The new amendment was quickly nicknamed the “border surge,” which Republicans subjected to a series of eye rolls. “When I say [we’ll achieve] ‘90 percent control of the border,’ people in Oklahoma look askance,” said Sen. Tom Coburn. “They say, that means 10 percent are still coming. And that 10 percent is the worst.”

And this was how Republicans talked after Democrats made all their available concessions. House Republicans are not impressed. They’ve already signaled that a bill that passes the Senate quickly will be suspect because it passed so quickly. “An opportunity to fix it does not mean, ‘oh, we gotta meet some artificial deadline to keep up with the Senate,’ ” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, in a chat with National Review. “Especially if the Senate produces a bill that’s had few hearings and gets done on a schedule that suggests they haven’t spent as much time looking at the details.”

Democrats always expected the House to take that skeptical approach. All they need is for the House to pass a bill, really any bill. It could even be something called “immigration reform” that doesn’t stop deportations or include any path to citizenship. “We need to get to conference,” said Rep. Gutierrez, meaning the Senate and the House need to meet after two bills have been passed, and then hopefully pass something Democrats can tolerate.

So today’s amendment, based on language by Corker and Sen. John Hoeven, was supposed to prove that there were 70 votes for a tough-enough bill. There were 67 votes in the room, maybe 69 had two Georgia senators not been socked in at the Atlanta airport. After he voted “aye,” Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker walked into a crowd of reporters and admitted that he leaned “no” on the full bill. What could win him over? Oh, more amendments. According to Corker, senators might craft a deal and vote on 20 more amendments—10 from each side—in the hopes of climbing to 70 votes. They keep talking as if their comrades in the House would notice.