WASHINGTON — Despite a bruising fiscal cliff battle that managed to set the stage for an even more heated showdown that will likely take place in a matter of months, President Barack Obama is planning to move full steam ahead with the rest of his domestic policy agenda.
An Obama administration official said the president plans to push for immigration reform this January. The official, who spoke about legislative plans only on condition of anonymity, said that coming standoffs over deficit reduction are unlikely to drain momentum from other priorities. The White House plans to push forward quickly, not just on immigration reform but gun control laws as well.
The timeframe is likely to be cheered by Democrats and immigration reform advocates alike, who have privately expressed fears that Obama’s second term will be drowned out in seemingly unending showdowns between parties. The just-completed fiscal cliff deal is giving way to a two-month deadline to resolve delayed sequestration cuts, an expiring continuing resolution to fund the government and a debt ceiling that will soon be hit.
With those bitter battles ahead, the possibility of passing other complicated legislation would seem diminished.
“The negative effect of this fiscal cliff fiasco is that every time we become engaged in one of these fights, there’s no oxygen for anything else,” said a Senate Democratic aide, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s not like you can be multi-tasking — with something like this, Congress just comes to a complete standstill.”
It remains unclear what type of immigration policies the White House plans to push in January, but turning them into law could be a long process. Aides expect it will take about two months to write a bipartisan bill, then another few months before it goes up for a vote, possibly in June. A bipartisan group of senators are already working on a deal, although they are still in the early stages. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) will likely lead on the Democratic side in the House. While many Republicans have expressed interest in piecemeal reform, it’s still unclear which of them plan to join the push.
Lofgren expressed hope that immigration reform would be able to get past partisan gridlock, arguing that the election was seen as something of a mandate for fixing the immigration system and Republicans won’t be able to forget their post-election promises to work on a bill. “In the end, immigration reform is going to depend very much on whether Speaker [John] Boehner wants to do it or not,” Lofgren said.
Advocates have vowed to keep pushing for reform. As part of their efforts, they plan to remind Republican members of Congress about their presidential nominee’s defeat among Latino and Asian voters, a majority of whom support a fix to the immigration system.
“They can procrastinate as long as they want, but they’re going to have a serious day of reckoning next election cycle,” said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress. “We’re going to have a lot of near-death experiences with this issue, but I’m pretty confident it’s never going to go completely to a flatline.”
Good news for immigration advocates may have come Tuesday night, when Boehner broke the so-called “Hastert Rule” and allowed the fiscal cliff bill to come for a vote without support from a majority of his Republican conference. Given opposition to immigration reform by many Tea Party Republicans, the proof that Boehner is willing to bypass them on major legislation is a good sign, the Democratic aide said.
“If something is of such importance that the GOP establishment [is] telling Boehner, ‘You must do this. You need to get this off the table soon,'” the Democratic aide said, the speaker could break the Hastert Rule again.
“He already did it with this fiscal issue, so I would not be surprised if when it came down to it he puts up a bill that he just allows to go through with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes, without worrying about a majority of the majority,” the aide continued.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, also said he thinks the House could pass an immigration bill in the same way it did last night, relying on support from both parties. He’s hopeful that the fiscal cliff fight could even make them happy to work out legislation in a more standard way.
“I never thought I’d say this, but after bruising battles over the future of the American and world economy, the chance to legislate through regular order on immigration reform might have leaders in both parties working together and singing ‘Kumbaya,'” Sharry said.