Next Up: The Gauntlet Facing Immigration Reform

So like a frivolous young person moving quickly from one love interest to another, the political chattering class can be expected to get over recriminations about gun legislation in a few days and begin focusing on the relentless power of bipartisanship to achieve a breakthrough on immigration reform.

I sincerely hope this optimism is justified, but don’t quite buy it yet. The very same dynamics that doomed Manchin-Toomey could most definitely bury the fragile Gang of Eight bill: a relentless conservative drive to pull legislation out of the bipartisan “sweet spot” it tentatively occupies, using leverage from the certainty of obstruction and delay in the House to lure Senate Republicans into a growing minority of “principled” dissenters aiming at the 41 votes necessary to bring the whole thing crashing down.

Interestingly enough, a Raju/Sherman piece at Politico today ostensibly trumpeting the confident and proactive efforts of Republican “reformers” to head off any conservative campaign to sidetrack the Gang of Eight also documents the rocky road ahead:

House Republicans, like Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, were already bashing the bill, and a Senate GOP leader, John Cornyn, was wary about the border security provisions in the proposal. A prospective 2016 presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, was preparing to offer amendments designed to pull the bill to the right….

“It’s worse than we thought,” said Smith, who formerly chaired the Judiciary Committee. He added: “It’s amnesty on a massive scale, greater than we anticipated,” Smith said. “And we took their word that the border was going to be secured before the other reforms were implemented and that’s not the case.”

“As smart as these eight senators are, they are not from Texas,” Cornyn said.

Added Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.): “We’ve seen this movie before — 27 years ago, remember?”

Shelby, of course, is alluding to a “scandal” that most people outside conservative activist circles are at best dimly aware of: the 1986 immigration law that sold “amnesty” under the false flag of reform.

The Gang of Eight’s plan to strike quickly before the inevitable opposition can “mobilize” itself will run headlong into conservative demands–often echoed by the key gang member Marco Rubio–to insure a slow and “transparent” process to ensure that people don’t get tricked like they allegedly were in 1986.

It often seems that a lot of the optimism about getting the bill quickly through the Senate and eventually through the House depends on an assumption that the entire Republican Party has a vested interest in Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions. But he’s hardly the only potential presidential candidate in play for 2016, and lest we forget, the entire 2012 Republican presidential field demonized “amnesty” to the point where poor bumbling Rick Perry got fatally torched for the sin of even expressing sympathy for “illegal immigrants” or their children.

A sign of that enduring dynamic emerged from the state that stands athwart Rubio’s (and everyone else’s) path to the White House. The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition didn’t get much media attention for its annual conference on Monday, mainly because headliner Rick Santorum canceled at the last minute due to health issues. But according to The Iowa Republican‘s Kevin Hall, master of ceremonies Gopal Krishna (affiliated with the Iowa Christian Alliance, the successor organization to the Christian Coalition) administered a pledge to the audience that seemed to attract near-universal assent:

1. All candidates should support life to natural death.

2. All candidates should support traditional marriage between one-man and one-woman.

3. All candidates should support the Second Amendment Right to Bear Arms.

4. All candidates should forget all types of amnesty and support securing our borders.

5. The establishment should not take us for granted, instead of giving us candidates who do not support our values.

Note items #4 and #5.

This is significant not just because 2016 Republican candidates for president will soon be avidly pursuing the support of the activists at this event, but because it calls into question the common assumption that the Christian Right is a natural source of support for comprehensive immigration reform. Indeed, a Politico article in February touted the Faith & Freedom Coalition (and its founder, Ralph Reed) as the ace-in-the-hole for immigration reformers because of its expressed interest in reform legislation (not, of course, including “amnesty,” which is the key issue for conservatives).

So don’t bet the farm on the inevitability of immigration reform just yet. And remember how confidently the same people now promoting the genius of the Gang of Eight were making the same noises about Manchin-Toomey just a few days ago.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.