WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are planning to quickly revisit immigration reform after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, according to several Democratic sources.
What type of legislation they will end up pushing has yet to be discussed in detail. But the party feels emboldened by Tuesday’s election results, in which Republicans suffered a blistering defeat among Latinos. And there is a sense that the political landscape couldn’t be more ripe for a legislative topic that’s proved dicey in the past.
“I am optimistic,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of immigration reform at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Thursday morning. Schumer chairs the immigration subcommittee. “It is a little bit of a mirror image like the fiscal cliff. I think there are a large number of Republicans who understand that the anti-immigrant position, no immigration, we couldn’t even pass a [worker visa] STEM bill through the House because the Republican caucus said you can’t have a net increase in any immigrants.”
A Democratic Senate source who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Huffington Post that the full push for reform won’t happen immediately, but will begin soon after Obama starts his second term. The Dream Act, which would give legal status to undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children, will be included in the efforts, according to the source.
“This isn’t going to happen during lame duck,” the source said.
The Obama administration has been a bit coy on what it views as its list of second-term priorities, with much of the early focus being spent on fiscal and tax policies that will take effect at the end of the year. But one close Obama advisor, not authorized to speak on the issue, said it made eminent political sense to try immigration reform at the top of the second term. And the president himself seemed to preview his intentions of doing just that during an interview with Univision late in his campaign, saying it was among his biggest failures.
“I can promise that I will try to do it in the first year of my second term. I want to try this year,” Obama said in another Univision interview earlier in the campaign.
The election provided a referendum of sorts on the Republican party’s immigration platform, and the results were close to pitiful. More than 70 percent of Latinos supported Obama over GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Polling found that a majority of Latinos were put off by Romney’s rhetoric and legislative positions on immigration, particularly his opposition to the Dream Act and a deferred action policy by Obama that would impact the same undocumented young people.
That dynamic extends to congressional Republicans, who — with the help of five Democrats — killed the Dream Act in the Senate in 2010 and have blocked other immigration measures as well.
The hope among reform advocates is that Tuesday’s results have dramatically changed the landscape. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that immigration reform is “very high” on his list of post-election priorities, and that Republicans could block it at their own “peril.”
Schumer said Senate Democrats “basically have the outlines” for immigration reform, which includes pressuring Republican members who previously showed support for visa measures to come back to the cause. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will be targeted in particular, Reid and Schumer said.
“I think [Republicans] are going to want to do it now,” Schumer said. “[It] is at the top of the list because the nation demands it and needs it. And, again, I think in the exit polls, two-thirds of Americans basically agreed with the concept of real immigration reform.”
He’s right: Americans in general, even Republicans, support immigration reform more than the congressional GOP would suggest. Sixty-five percent of voters support giving undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. a path to legal status, including 37 percent of Republicans, according to exit polls. Other polling indicates that a majority of non-Latinos also support the Dream Act and its allowance for young undocumented immigrants to eventually earn citizenship.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) planned earlier this year to introduce a Dream Act-lite that would allow some undocumented young people to gain legal status, but not citizenship. He dropped those plans after Obama’s deferred action directive, but some have called for him to take up the effort again, and he will likely be a leader among the Republicans on immigration reform. Alex Conant, his spokesman, declined to comment on Rubio’s plans on the issue.
Some have also called for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to rejoin the effort for legislation to help undocumented youth. Hatch was an original co-sponsor of the Dream Act with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in 2001, but voted against it in its most recent iteration. Hatch spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said “he’d be happy to listen to his colleagues” on immigration reform, but will keep his focus on economic issues as the lead Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
McCain’s office did not respond to a request for comment on how, or if, he will be involved.
Another Democratic Senate source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning, said they hope to have Republicans put forward their own plan so there can be a debate over whether immigration reform should include pathways to citizenship, for example. The source added that the Democratic plan would likely be similar to the broad bill put forward this session.
“The thinking has been done about what are the different elements that are going to be included in a bill, and now it’s just a question of what Republicans are going to agree to,” the source said.