Time becomes an enemy of immigration reform

The congressional calendar can be friend or foe for immigration reform this year.

Friend: In the relative calm after November’s elections, lawmakers could use a lame-duck session to be statesmen instead of politicians.

Foe: By insisting on another two months of field hearings this summer, House Republican leaders have probably booted formal negotiations with the Senate until September. With Congress scheduled to adjourn Oct. 6, that leaves precious little time to complete extraordinarily complicated work.

In politically volatile times, predictions are dangerous.

“That’s like a lifetime away,” Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said of a potential lame-duck session.

There is, in fact, widespread and barely muffled skepticism on Capitol Hill about the prospects of any immigration bill being completed this year. One influential committee chairman simply shook his head when asked about the immigration bill’s future.

That’s understandable. Taking a gander at the congressional calendar and bitter congressional moods could make a pessimist out of anyone.

“We’re not negotiating because the Senate hasn’t sent us a bill to negotiate over,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “And, you know, I’m sick and tired of you folks in the media blaming the House for obstructing the process.”

The House and Senate are deeply divided, with the House favoring strict border controls and the Senate favoring a combination of border security with guest-worker and legalization plans. The issue can always be kicked over until next year, and that might be inevitable given the limited time available.

In September and early October, the House and Senate must complete the 13 appropriations bills required by the federal government. That leaves little calendar space for anything else, particularly something as contentious as immigration, which already consumed a solid month of Senate debate time earlier this year.

Still, some see windows of opportunity in the months ahead.

For some time, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has forthrightly suggested that Congress is most likely to finish an immigration bill in the calm after the November elections. His own view of what’s doable has evolved _ Nunes now wants to move first with a border security bill before tackling a comprehensive immigration bill later. Nonetheless, lame-duck sessions can be peculiarly fruitful.

“The dynamics are that a lot of members who would vote no before the election vote yes afterward,” said Mike Lynch, chief of staff to the Modesto, Calif.-based Great Valley Center. “They’re totally free agents.”

Lynch formerly served as chief of staff to then-Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., who knew what can transpire between a November election and the January swearing-in of a new Congress. Illustrating how common they’ve become, Condit went through four lame-duck sessions while serving in the House between 1989 and 2002.

Sometimes, the sessions tackle politically dicey matters. Senators, for instance, waited for a lame-duck session in 1954 before censuring their red-baiting colleague, Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Likewise, Congress used a lame-duck session in 1980 to approve a 55 million-acre Alaska wilderness bill.

The Alaska wilderness legislation, in particular, showcased the unique political environment of a lame-duck session. It can be a session where old majorities are about to give way, or new leaders are about to arise. In late 1980, it was the prospect of Ronald Reagan being sworn in as president that prompted Congress and President Jimmy Carter to finish the wilderness bill.

For immigration reform, the question becomes how the November elections might shape congressional motivation. One scenario is that if Democrats are prepared to take over either the House or Senate, Republicans might quickly strike the best deal they can while they still hold power. An alternative scenario is that if Republicans retain their majorities, that could be considered an endorsement of the border security positions that House members will be promoting this summer.

“I think that this will be very helpful to bring home to people the problems that we see in the (Senate) bill,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said of the upcoming hearings.

Most often, lame-duck sessions deal with leftover spending bills _ and not always efficiently. For instance, Congress failed to finish its work after the November 2002 elections, forcing lawmakers to pass an unwieldy $390 billion spending bill to keep the government running.

“Some sessions (are) not particularly productive, often because of political disputes and the difficulties of reaching legislative decisions in a post-election environment,” the non-partisan Congressional Research Service noted in a thorough study.