Immigration Reform 2013: Why It Won't Happen Before the Midterms


Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) was supposed to happen this year. Well, actually, it was supposed to happen during the first year of President Barack Obama's first term. Despite this postponement, Obama said he was "very confident" that CIR could be done early in his second term.

Almost a year later, a bill has been passed in the Senate, but the House has yet to vote on it or any similar legislation. And that will likely be the way things stand for the rest of the year, or even until the 2014 midterm elections, because the momentum for CIR appears to be gone as attention has shifted elsewhere.

First, of course, is Syria. Obama has said he will hold Syria responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the bloody civil war there. This promises to be a long, convoluted process, reminiscent of the attempt to track down former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's WMDs in the 1990s. As a matter of military and foreign policy, it's not the sort of thing Obama or Congress can ignore.

Of particular concern, if Obama fails to uphold his promise to punish the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, he'll look weak, encouraging members of the Republican Party to oppose him on other issues. (Although, thanks to Russian president Vladimir Putin's intervention, it may already be too late for Obama on this front.)

But the problem for CIR goes well beyond Syria, as a mountain of fiscal issues looms in the coming weeks. The new fiscal year starts on October 1, meaning a budget must be put together. Ongoing sequestration and the need to increase the debt ceiling only complicate this further. It's likely that Congress will pass a continuing resolution as a temporary fix, and Obama may very well sign it. But this won't cause the budget problem to go away, it will only defer the issue, especially given that the debt ceiling looks like it will have to be raised in the next month, as well.

And then there's the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, AKA "Obamacare," which is supposed to bring health insurance exchanges to many uninsured (also on October 1). The media is no doubt going to focus their attention on how Obamacare rolls out — or, at least, the GOP will, at the same time as they use the budget debate as an opportunity to try to defund Obamacare. The health care legislation, passed in 2010, has already been fraught with problems — the dropping of the CLASS Act, the postponement of the employer mandate, the issuing of a host of waivers, and now subsidies for Congress — and there's no reason to think it's smooth sailing from here on in. As much as Obama may want CIR, he also wanted Obamacare, and it's already passed. Carrying out actual legislation is going to trump crafting new legislation.

Obama seems to be facing the same second-term blues we've seen in Bush, Clinton, and Reagan before him. Politicos are investing in future candidates and turning their backs on past ones. Obama is term-limited, Congress is looking toward reelection in 2014, and people (e.g., former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) are already gearing up for the next presidential election in 2016.

Maybe things will shape up in Obama and CIR's favor somehow. Syria is unpredictable, and might suddenly turn into a non-issue. Obamacare and its exchanges might play out well and be popular. The sequester and debt ceiling might be resolved quickly, involving some grand bargain that settles the budget issue in general. And maybe Iran, North Korea, and every other potential hot spot will stay quiet.

All this would raise Obama's stature, and help him push for CIR. But that's an awful lot to hope for.

And we've already seen Obama effectively abandon a host of causes: gun control, cap-and-trade carbon emissions legislation, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, etc. I think we can safely add comprehensive immigration reform to the list.