As the fierce battle over the debt ceiling and the government shutdown came to temporary end last week, President Barack Obama announced his next priorities, all of which will have great impact on Florida.
One is the need to agree on a budget, which will affect the entire nation. But the other two goals –passing immigration reform and a farm bill—will have outsized impact on Florida, with its large agricultural economy and the immigrant labor that industry depends on.
In his address after the government’s re-opening, Obama cited the fact that the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill in June.
“It’s sitting there, waiting for the House to pass it,” Obama said. “Now, if the House has ideas on how to improve the Senate bill, let’s hear them. Let’s start the negotiations. This can and should get done by the end of this year.”
But will it? That will depend on the 232-seat Republican majority in the House and in particular on House Speaker John Boehner. Most political observers agree Obama won the standoff with the House GOP over the shutdown and whether those Republicans will be willing to address immigration, an Obama priority, depends on who you talk to.
“The question is: Is there an appetite to take this on now?” says Tamar Jacoby, a Republican and president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a business group that favors reform. “Some will insist on keeping the focus on fiscal matters. And some will say, ‘This is what Obama wants, why should we give him another victory?’ ”
But Jacoby says some moderate House Republicans are urging action on immigration.
“They are saying: ‘We have to show we can govern and get things done,’ ” she says.
Former GOP Congressman Mark Foley of West Palm Beach, who left the Congress in 2006, says he has witnessed such discussions.
“I have been in those rooms after a legislative disaster,” Foley says. “Some people are saying, ‘I can’t trust him.’ Others are saying, ‘We have to do something positive. How do we turn this defeat into a positive sound bite and prove to the people that we can accomplish something good?’ ” Foley favors the second option.
So do many national GOP leaders, who are urging immigration reform to win over Hispanic voters. Those leaders include Florida senator Marco Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, GOP political guru Karl Rove, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and conservative Christian leader Ralph Reed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many evangelical church leaders, traditional Republicans, are also behind it.
Despite that pressure, Jacoby says, it is key that any House legislation not contain the special path to citizenship for undocumented people contained in the Senate bill. Too many House Republicans consider that amnesty and a reward for people who entered the country illegally and won’t vote for it. But she thinks the right legislation, granting legal status to most of the 11 million undocumented in the country but no special citizenship formula, could win the needed Republican votes.
“There is a possibility of doing it but it can’t be framed as the president and (Senate majority leader) Harry Reid, having won on the debt ceiling, are now using their leverage to a pass immigration reform,” she says. “That won’t work. It will only work if it is seen to be in Republicans’ interest and framed in a way that will win over conservatives.”
Foley, who backs reform, says it will take legislative finesse.
“They may have to outmaneuver Obama on one of his own issues,” he says.
Ana Navarro, the Miami-based Republican political consultant and CNN commentator, sees one way the immigration issue could work for the GOP. She says U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012, is a leader in budget negotiations and could also become the key person on immigration.
“Paul Ryan is in a position to become the fixer in the Republican Party,” she says. “He can use immigration reform as a bargaining chip on a grand bargain on spending.”
Ryan supports reform and could help bring other Republicans onboard, Jacoby says, but she believes Boehner will not want to take the process away from his own House Judiciary Committee, where legislation is already being written and passed, which can be taken to a conference with the Senate.
Another key issue will be “the Hastert rule,” a GOP procedural standard that says legislation can only be brought to the floor of the House if a majority of the Republican House members – a majority of the majority — approve. It is named after Denny Hastert, a former GOP speaker. Boehner has waived that policy on several occasions, including on the recent vote to end the shutdown. Only 87 Republicans voted with 199 Democrats to end it.
Navarro believes that policy has been broken so many times it no longer exists, if it ever existed. She says it won’t figure in immigration legislation.
“Even Denny Hastert says there is no such thing as the Hastert rule,” she says. “It’s an urban legend.”
But again, her fellow Republican, Jacoby disagrees. She believes Boehner will not violate the basic tenet of the policy, which means he will insist that any legislation brought to the floor will be tailored to win over a majority of his GOP members.
Geoffrey Skelley, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, also doubts Boehner will break the policy to pass immigration reform.
“The recent vote on the debt ceiling and shutdown was seen as much more urgent,” he said. “A vote on immigration reform is not life and death.” Skelley says Republicans may not take up immigration reform at all.
“Right now the Republicans don’t think they are going to lose the House in 2014 so there is no reason to do something that could help Democrats,” he says. Democrats overwhelmingly support reform.
One reason many House Republicans are wary of immigration reform is that a vote in favor could bring primary challenges next year from members of the tea parties, many of whom oppose any legalization of the undocumented.
But Foley says in some districts nationwide, including in Florida, GOP Congress members may have to show their support for immigration reform to keep from losing in the general election. One example would be U.S. Rep Daniel Webster of Winter Park, whose district contains a large Hispanic population and who espouses reform.
“For some Republicans, the risk of being beaten by a Democrat because of a reluctance to back immigration reform is bigger than the risk of being primaried by a tea party candidate,” Foley said. “They should look at the immigration issue as a way to put the Republican Party back on course.”
As for the farm bill, another of the president’s priorities, that has also become complicated. After the Senate passed a bill that resembled the last big farm bill in 2008, House Republicans insisted on cutting billions of dollars in food stamp funding contained in it. The issue is now in conference.
Lisa Lochridge, of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said her group is fine with the Senate bill, which contains funding for programs that favor Florida fruit and vegetable producers, as well as ample food stamp funding.
“The 2008 bill, a large part of which was a nutritional program, worked well for us,” she said. “The Senate and House bills have gone to conference and we are encouraged that good legislation will emerge.”