Would Tough Border Security Survive a Conference Committee?

House Republicans would like to vote for an immigration reform approach that hues to the amendment introduced by Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas. This would require that the border be sealed, with illegal immigration cut by 90 percent before any legalization or amnesty could begin for illegal immigrants already here. Border security legislation emerging from the House Judiciary Committee will likely satisfy their concerns. Although it is not likely to prescribe how to cut illegal immigration, instead leaving that for the administration to figure out, it will tie further progress on reform to the successful completion of the border security mission.

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House Republicans ask what might happen if they pass this border security bill and it goes into the conference committee alongside the Senate bill that does not predicate legalization on actual progress on the border. They worry that the “compromise” that comes out of committee will closely parallel the Senate bill and leave border security far behind in the dust.

Looming in the background is their legitimate fear that such a bill would easily pass the House with solid Democratic support and a smattering of Republicans, leaving them to vote no in frustration and impotence.

But would the conference committee play out that way?

It depends on how its work is perceived. If the Senate Democrats push for immigration reform and the House Republicans say they want border security first, the Republicans will win that debate. Latinos favor border security. A recent poll by John McLaughlin showed 57 percent of U.S. Latino voters back a bill along the lines suggested by Cornyn. And whites and blacks in the Democratic House districts will fail to understand why their Congressmen are giving priority to amnesty over border security.

It’s a bit like the confrontation between President Clinton and the Gingrich-led Republican Congress in 1995-1996. In that battle, as long as the Gingrich budget cuts were the only path to a balanced budget, voters accepted their necessity and agreed to them. But when President Clinton laid out a path to a balanced budget that did not include the more severe of the Gingrich cuts, voters happily backed Clinton and turned against the Republican cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.

Now, if the only path to immigration reform and legalization of those already here is the Democratic approach, voters will accept it even without real guarantees of border security. But if the Republicans provide a way to achieve both reform and border security, voters will tilt their way.

In the polarized world of Washington, one is either for reform-first or border security-first. But voters want them both. And the Republican approach offers that.

The Democrats will, of course, argue that the Senate bill does too, but voters will side with the Republicans when they point out that the Obama administration, having failed to seal the border over the past five years, is not likely to do it now unless they are forced to do it in order to begin legalization.

Republicans still have the majority in the House. If Speaker John Boehner gives his majority appropriate assurances that he will oppose any compromise that does not put border security first, he will assuage conservative concerns and will probably be able to get an almost unanimous Republican vote around the Cornyn approach. After all, we have to realize that if Boehner is forced to go to the Democrats for votes, they will weaken the bill, costing additional Republican votes, until we end up with the Senate bill.

And if Boehner can keep his caucus united and immune to the seductions of the Senate bill, nobody need fear a conference committee. If the committee were to deadlock over border security, Democrats would be perceived as refusing to pass tough border legislation even if it means gutting immigration reform. Neither their Latino nor their other voters will be pleased.

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