Immigration reform

America Drifting Back to Cold War Paradigm

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade and transportation bills languish in Congress, the United States seems to be slipping into a multi-front cold war as it returns to troops to Iraq, sends heavy arms to Baltic states bordering Russia and fends off cyberwar attributed to China.

The House spectacularly derailed fast-track trade authority legislation last week and House and Senate leaders have tried for months without success to find common ground on a long-term transportation funding measure. President Obama has pushed both. He says a trade pact with Asian countries will prevent China from ultimately writing the rules of commerce in that critical region. Obama says transportation investments are essential to support 21st century commerce and job creation.

However, foreign affairs keep drawing attention away from those priorities and toward a familiar destination. Islamic State gains in Syria and Iraq have sharpened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Obama's attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran has shaken long-time alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in its own military conflict with Houthi insurgents in neighboring Yemen.

Russian moves to seize Crimea and sponsor armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has made former Soviet states jittery, causing the United States to promise heavy military hardware. That prompted an escalation by the Russians who have put some of its remaining nuclear capability on alert.

Special operations forces and unmanned drones continue to carry out attacks to kill high-value targets, such as a top Al Qeada official in Yemen, as part of an effort to degrade terrorist organizations' abilities to attack the United States.

Meanwhile, Chinese computer hackers keep breaking into public and private databases to steal proprietary data and amass huge online personal information data banks.

By just about any definition, it seems like a world at war.

Recent polls suggest Americans may be willing to see troops dispatched to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, which a majority views as a threat to the United States. GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker has said he would entertain sending ground forces back to Iraq.

The mood swing is very different from the atmosphere leading up to the 2008 election when Obama succeeded in drawing a sharp distinction with Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and Republican opponent John McCain in the general election over ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate hawks such as McCain and GOP presidential candidate Lindsay Graham have pummeled Obama for failing to respond more decisively and engaging more deeply in removing Bashar al-Assad as Syria's ruler and arming Ukrainians to fend off Russians in the besieged eastern part of the country. There hasn't been a rush to support their views, but public opinion appears to be sliding in their direction.

The latest Gallup Poll shows Americans have very low confidence in Congress, which may influence their resignation at the institution's inability address major issues such as trade, transportation funding and immigration reform. The same poll showed Americans have the greatest confidence in the military.  

A Lame Duck Congressional Cromnibus

A lame duck Congress is reduced to passing a tax bill that expires almost as soon as it passes and a spending bill that seeks to single out the Department of Homeland Security.

A lame duck Congress is reduced to passing a tax bill that expires almost as soon as it passes and a spending bill that seeks to single out the Department of Homeland Security.

The lame duck Congress appears on the verge of passing a tax bill that would expire January 1, 2015 and considering something called a "cromnibus," a plan to keep the federal government's doors open while placating conservative Republicans.

The tax bill, which would extend 50 expiring tax benefits, was once a promising measure. But the omission of an earned income tax credit, the threat of a presidential veto and the looming GOP congressional majority in the next Congress left negotiators little wiggle room. They chose the lowest common denominator – extending the tax provisions through 2014, but ending January 1, 2015.

That means tax credits, such as the one that benefit electric motorcycle manufacturers like Brammo in Ashland, Oregon, won't be unplugged, at least for now.

The cromnibus has a similar political lineage.

Just last month, House and Senate Appropriations staff were well on their way to negotiating framework for a 2015 omnibus spending bill. Thanks to a bipartisan deal crafted last December by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), domestic and national security spending levels were set for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The deal gave Congress a funding road map for fiscal 2015 and allowed House and Senate Appropriations panels to write nearly all of their fiscal 2015 bills with comparable top-line spending levels, leaving less to negotiate.

Unfortunately, optimism for an omnibus measure faded after President Obama issued an executive order on immigration to protect five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Many Republicans insist the executive actions are an abuse of constitutional power and are turning to the appropriations process to block Obama's efforts. 

To appease these members of the GOP, House Appropriation Chair Harold Rogers (R-KY) is crafting a "cromnibus" package. This measure would fund all of government operations and spending through the end of fiscal 2015, except for Homeland Security. A separate three-month continuing resolution would be provided for the agency, buying time for the GOP to determine how to block the executive orders in the new Congress.

Still, a group of vocal conservatives is pushing House GOP leaders to attach a policy rider to the cromnibus that explicitly prevents funding for executive actions on immigration. Such a move would be dead on arrival in the Senate. For now, the clock is ticking as appropriators race to finalize a plan that will pass both chambers by December 11 and prevent a government shutdown. 

Ultimately, the outcome of the lame duck session will give the best indication of how well the new Republican majority will work with President Obama. If Republicans prefer to play hardball with a possible government shutdown on December 11, the stage will be set for a tumultuous two years of governing.

Members of Congress returned to DC with a hefty to-do list that includes the National Defense Authorization Act, which has a strong history of bipartisan support and is on track to pass again this year.

When Immigration and Sex Trafficking Law Meet

While politicians are finger-pointing, thousands of unaccompanied children are pouring into the United States to seek asylum.

President Obama is blamed for lax border enforcement and former President George W. Bush is fingered for signing a bipartisan-backed bill in 2008 designed to give legal protections in the United States to children trying to escape sex trafficking in their home countries, excluding Mexico and Canada.

The flood of unattended children showing up at the nation's doorstep coincides with a widespread political belief that comprehensive immigration reform is dead in this Congress, and maybe even longer. A Democratically controlled Senate, which sent a bipartisan immigration bill to the House, isn't likely to go for a bill that merely tinkers with immigration issues. 

So the Obama administration faces the task of what to do with children with legal rights, but not legal residency status. One community already has balked at having children bused to temporary housing there. And Obama is asking Congress for $4 billion for housing and more judges and courtrooms to process the children who risked their lives coming here. 

It is an ugly scene, no matter how you look at it. It also appears to be coagulating quickly into another partisan battlefront, which could obscure the humanitarian issues involved. The children coming here are clearly in harm's way in their Central American home countries. Their life prospects look pretty dim if they are returned to sender.

Congressional Republicans, who blame Obama for the surge, appear to favor a change making it easier to send back the children. But not all Republicans, including many in the evangelical community, are on board with that idea. Those who played a key role in passing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act disagree that it should be changed. They say the law is doing what it was intended to do — protect children. 

Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus

Congress works in wondrous ways with GOP members voting no on bills they hope will pass so they aren't blamed for the results of not passing.The House and Senate votes this week to raise the federal debt ceiling to avoid the threat of default highlighted what a New York Times analyst called the "Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus" in Congress.

Debt ceiling legislation passed in the GOP-controlled House with only 28 Republican "yes" votes. Times reporter Carl Hulse said that "was the lowest percentage for a majority on passage since the House began publishing electronic data on votes in 1991."

The Senate struggled to close off debate with the required 60 votes until GOP leaders relented and provided the handful of votes needed to bring up the legislation for an actual vote.

"The results in both the Senate and House," Hulse concluded, "illustrate the countervailing political forces at work on Capitol Hill and how the current partisan environment makes governing so difficult."

Full Plate Greets Returning Congress

After five weeks back home, Congress returns to what shapes up as an issue-busting fall, starting with a charged debate over U.S. military action in Syria. But not far behind are titanic battles over the federal debt ceiling, a Continuing Resolution, immigration reform and the farm bill.

Even before President Obama lobbed his political grenade over military action in Syrian into the halls of Congress, the House and Senate faced a daunting schedule, including an effort by some conservative Republicans to stage a final showdown over funding for Obamacare. 

The political fireworks start Tuesday when Obama addresses the nation to make his case for targeted military strikes in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime. It will take every ounce of communication wizardry by Obama to convince a war-weary nation and a skeptical Congress to authorize use of military force. He may have the necessary votes in the Senate, but not in the House, where both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans may combine to block a majority.

Key votes on Syria are expected this week. It is unclear whether Obama will blast away with or without congressional approval. But it also is possible that new developments could occur. For example, Russia said it would push Syria to turn over control of its chemical weapons to international authorities.

One positive from the divisiveness over Syria is that House GOP leaders have soured on the idea of a contentious fight over a Continuing Resolution, at least right now while the nation's attention is diverted. This could lead to a short-term extension of federal spending authority until later in the fall when Republican strategists believe they will have more political leverage.

Even though the House and Senate Appropriations committees have acted on nearly all spending measures, the Senate hasn't passed any of them and the House has only passed four. That could lead to an omnibus appropriations measure or measures to catch up. 

Two Americas

The apparent demise of comprehensive immigration reform this year gives further evidence of a sharp political divide, revealing two starkly different American viewpoints, with little room and even less willingness to compromise.Listening to the debate on immigration reform in the Senate and House is like watching two parallel universes. In real terms, it reflects two Americas.

House GOP leaders made clear this week after a closed-door session with their members that they will have none of the Senate-passed immigration reform, which they branded as "fatally flawed."  The main flaw is a path to citizenship for 11 million or more undocumented workers and their families living in the United States.

Republicans talked about President Obama and his predecessors failing to secure U.S. borders against illegal immigrants. They deplored lax prosecution of illegal immigrants, notwithstanding the higher number of deportations carried out during Obama's presidency. They expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform, but one GOP congressman described it as sifting through the millions of people seeking to immigrate and selecting the applicants who will "produce more tax revenue than they consume."

Cherry Blossoms and Compromise Bloom

Suddenly Congress is abloom with cherry blossoms and compromises on gun control and immigration reform, a vote to break a Senate filibuster and a presidential budget proposal that angered both Republicans and Democrats.

Granted most of the activity was in the Senate, which has stirred from paralysis in response to the 2012 election and fast-moving demographic changes that could reshape the nation's electoral map. Even Congressman Paul Ryan — the chief budget warrior in the GOP-controlled House — signaled the possibility of a deal with President Barack Obama, despite Speaker John Boehner calling it a plan for deficit spending forever.

The political fault lines haven't evaporated, but leading Republicans are eager to seize the moment to repair tattered relations with minority voters, who vote heavily Democratic, and suburban voters, who are emerging as the key swing votes in many states. Both constituencies balk at some of the more extreme GOP positions.

GOP ballot box failures with African-American and Latino voters were highlighted in Obama's victory last fall. But more important are signs that more bedrock red states such as Texas and Arizona are seeing a marked shift toward the political middle or beyond. That has led to a new political pliancy by the likes of Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on immigration.

Guest Workers Barrier to Immigration Reform

Influential U.S. senators toured border security facilities in Arizona this week. However, the battle over comprehensive immigration reform may already have migrated to how to deal with guest workers.

In their tour, senators witnessed the apprehension of a woman who tried to scale an 18-foot tall fence. Chances are their private conversations during the trip centered on how to find common ground between the views of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on guest workers. 

Organized labor wants to avoid a flood of new workers that elbow aside Americans for jobs or erode U.S. wage rates for lower-skill employment. The Chamber says an influx of immigrant workers will fill vacant jobs, especially in agriculture, and add productivity to the U.S. economy by providing a source of lower-cost labor.

The knot of senators working on immigration reform, which includes Arizona's two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, had hoped to have a consensus measure ready for Senate consideration in April. In the world of politics, it is best to deal with controversial issues as far away as possible from the next election. As time drifts on, more Members of Congress may get cold feet.

Differences over a guest worker program scuttled immigration reform in 2007 and represent a major obstacle to a compromise this year, despite an alignment of political stars in which both Democrats and Republicans want to win points with swelling numbers of Latino voters.

According to Bloomberg News, Democrats have proposed to allocate 10,000 visas annually for low-skilled workers, in a manner similar to how visas are issued to high-skilled workers, with a maximum cap of 200,000 visas. Republicans, led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, call that idea cumbersome and unworkable. Business interests have called for a program that issues 400,000 guest worker visas.