The trio of investigations causing headaches for President Barack Obama’s administration have also provided a honeymoon period for the marquee element of his domestic agenda: revising immigration laws.
The congressional probes into various government agencies diverted attention at a critical time, allowing the Senate Judiciary Committee a respite from the spotlight as it reached critical compromises on the measure and approved it on a bipartisan 13-5 vote on May 21. The bill would allow the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. without authorization a chance at citizenship.
“It’s like magic -- you distract the audience while the real trick is being done -- and I think right now, while Americans focus on President Obama’s unending difficulties, it’s good news for the Gang of Eight working on immigration,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, referring to the four Republicans and four Democrats who crafted the bill.
The dynamic is probably fleeting; the immigration measure’s path is likely to become more treacherous as the scandal investigations persist in grabbing headlines, the legislation moves toward a high-profile Senate vote next month, and skeptical House Republicans have their say.
That debate will take place while Congress is still raising questions about allegations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted anti-tax groups for scrutiny, the Justice Department seized Associated Press telephone records in a leak investigation, and the State Department initially glossed over the seriousness of last September’s attack on consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
“The timing of all of this is kind of interesting in that it probably took a bit of heat off the markup in the committee - - that doesn’t mean the bill’s not going to face intense scrutiny on the Senate floor,” Democratic strategist Jim Manley said.
“Regardless of all the so-called scandals whirling around, the fact is the immigration bill is about the only thing that’s going to get done this year,” he said.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the group of eight that wrote the compromise bill as well as the Judiciary Committee that signed off on it, said the scandal fever that has broken out in Washington has “been good” for the legislation, lowering the emotional temperature that has surrounded past failed efforts to make immigration changes.
“To be able to go through this markup where nobody can claim that we’ve short-circuited the process -- it’s been an open process, we’ve adopted some substantive amendments -- to be able to do that without people calling press conferences outside and without groups calling members, it’s been a good process,” Flake said in an interview, referring to the Judiciary panel’s actions. “I’d have to say it probably helped.”
The final day of Judiciary’s markup of the bill was a case in point. While former IRS officials testified before the Senate Finance Committee, the panel convened in the building next door for its fifth day of deliberations. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, quietly reached agreement with Democrats on changes to a high-skilled visa program, clearing an impediment to his party’s support for the bill.
“While the discussion on TV continues, the immigration bill marches on, and that’s because of that independent, strong support for the bill -- labor, business, farm groups, it’s incredible,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic member of the committee. “It’s been actually a nice oasis to actually do some legislating during all of the somewhat radioactive news.”
The immigration bill stands at the same juncture a similar measure reached in June 2007, before heading for the Senate floor and collapsing after an at-times bitter floor fight, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans to defeat it.
That could still be the current legislation’s fate. The potential damage from the scandal to Obama’s influence and the partisan fissures they could create may diminish momentum.
Also, some Democrats regard the bill’s provisions to bolster border security and enforcement as too punitive and object that it creates an arduous and costly process for undocumented immigrants to eventually gain citizenship.
And while most Republican leaders have embraced an immigration revision as a political imperative after the 2012 elections demonstrated their weakness with Hispanic voters, some parts of the party’s base remain opposed to what they regard as “amnesty.”
Some of the immigration bill’s top Republican supporters, who are risking their support from those party activists, have been the loudest voices criticizing Obama over the scandals.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another of the eight senators who teamed to write the bill, has used several television interviews, speeches on the Senate floor and his Twitter social media account to express outrage at the Obama administration over the Benghazi and IRS cases.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Gang of Eight participant, also has been among the most outspoken critics of the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack.
“Walking and chewing gum at the same time is something that is a lost art in politics,” Graham said in an interview. “Investigating the administration about IRS and Benghazi is very important. Passing immigration reform is very important. We can do both.”
The measure’s critics are still pressing to prevent that from happening, and seeking to use the negative attention focused on Obama’s administration as a means of doing so.
Tea Party Opposition
A coalition of Republican-aligned commentators and small- government Tea Party groups released a letter on May 21 urging opposition to the bill, writing that it suffers from “fundamental design flaws that make it unsalvageable,” including that it “cedes excessive control over immigration law to an administration that has repeatedly proven itself to be untrustworthy, even duplicitous.”
Should the measure pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, its initial reception will be chilly in the House, where Republicans hold the majority.
The bill won’t accomplish the goal of ending “illegal immigration for once and for all,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who will be a key player in determining its fate.
“The Senate bill is unlikely to secure the border,” Goodlatte said at a hearing he convened yesterday in Washington to examine the legislation.
In other criticisms, he said the measure takes too long -- as much as seven years -- to implement an electronic employment verification system, known as e-verify.
His comments underscore the congressional hurdles that loom for revising immigration laws -- obstacles that Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said will be harder for Obama to surmount if the scandals continue to undercut his credibility.
“It may help them now that people aren’t paying as much attention” to the debate on the immigration bill because of the investigations, “but long-term it’s a big problem,” Bonjean said. “The president’s political capital diminishes as these crises continue, and eventually he’s going to have to cash in that capital to get people to cast tough votes and push this thing through.”
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