Why Immigration Reform’s Hail Mary Won’t Succeed

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Immigration-reform backers and their Democratic allies have reached that point in the game: they’re considering a long-shot legislative maneuver to get a bill passed in Congress this year.


A procedure known as a “discharge petition” would allow Democrats in the House of Representatives to move an immigration reform bill from the committee level — where it’s languishing at the hands of uninterested Republicans — to the floor for a vote.

Sounds like a great plan! Except there’s almost no chance they can pull it off.

“These petitions are generally not very successful,” says Steve Billet, the director of the legislative affairs program at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “They’re often used by minority parties, in particular, to publicize an issue.”


The main problem is this: Democrats, the minority party in the House, want to force a bill to the floor for a vote. But to do that would require a certain amount of support from Republicans, 17 of them, if all Democrats get behind the petition effort. And right now, a dozen House Dems are immigration-reform holdouts, so the petition might need even more backing from GOP members.

The most recent use of a discharge petition to enact major legislation was over a decade ago. In 2002, Republicans in the House broke with their party leadership to force a vote on a sweeping campaign-finance reform bill, what’s commonly known as McCain-Feingold. That law was partially struck down by the Supreme Court in 2010.

“That was an environment which was less partisan, less polarized than just now,” Billet says. “And in that circumstance, there was a group of Republicans who were very much in favor or campaign finance reform legislation.”

Immigration reform isn’t very popular among House Republicans. A comprehensive immigration bill drafted by Democrats has garnered just three Republican cosponsors and only 19 GOP representatives openly back a set of immigration principles put forth by the party last month. That’s less than 10 percent of the entire conference.


Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has downplayed the chances of holding a vote on immigration reform this year. That means that Republicans signing onto a discharge petition would be going against the public stance of the party.

A forced vote on immigration reform could put Republican congressmen running for reelection in an awkward predicament.


“Part of the job of the party leadership is to protect their members from difficult votes,” says Michele Swers, an associate professor of American government at Georgetown University.

By stalling on immigration, the Republican leadership is allowing members to take a purposefully ambiguous position on the issue.


“If you had a discharge petition, then all these congressmen would actually have to take a position and vote,” Swers says. “They could be hurt by that.”

Republicans who defy party leadership could also pay a price down the road.

When the campaign finance reform bill passed in 2002, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) marshaled GOP support for the discharge petition.


“They subsequently passed him over for the chairmanship of a committee in the next Congress,” Billet says. “It was their way of sending him a message. ‘If you do this kind of thing, if you embarrass the leadership, we’re going to seek some revenge.’ And I think it’s to be expected, especially in the current environment.”

Shays was defeated by a Democratic challenger in 2008. If a Republican wanted to lead a revolt around immigration reform today, he or she would face another challenge: grassroots activists on the far right.


“We didn’t have a Tea Party back then,” says Billet. “If I were a Republican member of Congress and the opportunity presented itself to sign a discharge petition on immigration reform, I’d really be worried that the Tea Party or somebody else might find a candidate to primary me.”

The midterm elections make Republican risk-takers even more vulnerable to a primary challenger on the right, according to Swers.


“The midterm electorate is a lot older, it’s a lot whiter and it’s a lot more ideologically conservative, particularly the primary voters for Republicans,” she says. “That kind of electorate does not favor immigration reform.”

The takeaway: The discharge petition is a way for Democrats to show their constituency they’re pushing for immigration reform, but the practical odds of it working this year are next to nill.


Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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