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The Big Leap Forward On Immigration Reform That Doesn't Matter

An immigration reform advocate I spoke to yesterday had a fine way of summarizing the tenuous mix of hope and frustration he feels watching comprehensive immigration reform take shape in the Senate: “Even when the ball moves, it doesn’t.” 

To understand his meaning, look no further than two news items out today regarding immigration. First, the New York Times is reporting that Republicans Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota have reached a compromise on strengthening border security—an issue, although the initial bill released by the Gang of Eight was already very tough on the border, that Senators on the fence have been quibbling about for the better part of two weeks. The compromise, which will expand conservative support for the bill, makes for a significant step forward, although Corker and Hoeven’s compromise itself is somewhat of a silly development. The original Gang of Eight bill already called for the national implementation of the eVerify system for employers, an expensive exit visa system to track movement in and out of the country, and a 90 percent apprehension rate at the border—measures that would reduce the miniscule number of illegal border crossings occurring each year by 25 percent. And yet the Corker-Hoeven compromise would double the number of patrol agents at the U.S. Mexico border to 40,000—despite the fact that border enforcement has already helped bring immigration to net zero—and fund the construction of 700 miles of new fencing, all at an additional expense of $30 billion.

What is more, Senate Republicans designed this compromise in response to Tuesday’s Congressional Budget Office report on the original bill, which predicted enormous reductions in the deficit and illegal border crossings. Ecstatic reform supporters touted the CBO report as a “game changer” that would break the malaise in the Senate that had persisted for weeks. Indeed, speaking to the Times, Corker and Hoeven said that it was that CBO report which reassured their Republican colleagues on the Gang of Eight bill and spurred them to finally find a border security compromise. But what this means, essentially, is that the far right of the Senate irresponsibly seized on immigration reform’s good report card to demand extraneous border security concessions.

But you may yet find yourself able to stomach the folly of the Corker-Hoeven proposal. Where a very good Senate immigration bill, without the unnecessary expenses Republicans are tacking on, may have gotten 60 votes, a merely good bill with the Corker-Hoeven language may net something closer to 70, by the Times’s count—a supermajority meant to signal the bill’s acceptability to House Republicans.

This brings us to the other bit of news, about the House Republican caucus. Politico reports that House Republicans are reacting to the Senate’s catering with something between a shrug and a big wet raspberry. See Rep. Raul Labrador’s take on a hypothetical Senate bill that notches 70 votes: “Oooh, I’m scared.”

All of which is to say, the situation today is much the same as it was yesterday as it was last week. That the CBO report made room for a more conservative cohort of senators to back the bill, who in turn altered the bill to make it acceptable to their House brethren, is a pretty important development to the bill. Except that it still won't phase the majority of House Republicans who plan to reject the Senate bill. Meanwhile, Boehner is still holding the line on the Hastert Rule, saying that he won’t bring the Senate bill to a vote unless the majority of his majority supports it.

Is Boehner bluffing, intending to break the Hastert rule as he did to avert the fiscal cliff, renew the Violence Against Women Act, and provide aid for areas hit by Hurricane Sandy? Or is he willing, indeed, to stand by his caucus through their crazed fulminations, derailing the Republicans’ “rebranding” efforts? As they were last week, these are intriguing questions—unaffected by what amounts to a pretty startling expansion in the bill’s support in the Senate. “We are always at a temporal moment in this conversation, with things still converging on how pigheaded Boehner wants to be, no matter what the Senate does,” the reform advocate said yesterday. “It’s really shitty.”

Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.