Demonstrators display placards during a rally in front of the Statehouse, in Providence, R.I., Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Inside Washington on Monday, the realest talk on comprehensive immigration reform came around 3:45 in the afternoon, an hour after the “Gang of Eight” released its comprehensive immigration reform proposal.
That’s when Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of Alabama walked onto the floor of the Senate and started throwing ice-cold water on all this highfalutin immigration talk:
In 2006 and 2007, with the full support of the Republican president of the United States, a bipartisan committee announced with great confidence they had a plan that’s going to fix our immigration system, and we were all just going to line up and vote for it. The masters of the universe decided.
They met in secret, they had all the special interest groups gather, and they worked out a plan that was going to change our immigration system for the better. And we should all be grateful.
It came up in 2006; it did not pass. It came back in 2007 with even more emphasis; it failed colossally. It failed because it did not do what they said it would do. It did not end the illegality. It did not set forth a proper principle of immigration for America, it did not sufficiently alter the nature of our immigration system to advance the national interest of the United States. It did not. And that’s why it didn’t pass.
It had all the powerful forces—it had the TV guys and newspaper guys and the Wall Street guys and the agriculture guys and the civil rights groups and the La Raza groups and the politicians. But the American people said no.
If you substitute “my overwhelmingly white, Southern constituents” for “the American people,” that is indeed exactly what happened. And it is quite likely to happen again. When one examines polls of Republican voters on immigration reform, and then looks at how many Congressional seats are held by the GOP, it is sadly easy to see that despite all the rosy talk, real immigration reform will remain elusive.
One week after November’s election, when defeat was presumably most raw for Republican voters, and stories abounded about the demographic doom facing the GOP, the Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll  about immigration reform.
The top line was that more Americans were now backing a pathway to citizenship. (A pathway to citizenship is essential to any comprehensive immigration reform—it is comprehensive immigration reform. Otherwise we’re just talking about more border security.) But when broken down by party identification, the results weren’t nearly as promising:
Not only did a mere 37 percent of Republicans nationwide favor a pathway to citizenship, only 11 percent strongly supported it. By comparison, 47 of the 60 percent who opposed it felt strongly about that view.
This fairly unified base of voters is who Senator Sessions is talking to when he goes on about “illegality,” and makes not-so-subtle nativist appeals to the “proper immigration policy for America,” one that is in the “national interest of the United States” and that the “American people” have already spoken on. (In Alabama, I doubt support for citizenship would even sniff the 37 percent level it receives among Republicans nationally.)
Many of Sessions’ colleagues, particularly in the House—where districts are small and meticulously tailored to include only the reddest voters—have already similarly dismissed the Gang of Eight proposal on its face because it contains a pathway to citizenship, or “amnesty” as they derisively call it. “This will be a green light for anyone who wants to come to America illegally and then be granted citizenship one day,” said  Representative Lou Barletta. “When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration,” said  Representative Lamar Smith, a key member of the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
Are these members acting in the best long-term interests of the Republican Party? Almost certainly not. Any strategist in D.C. can tell you that. But they are responding to different, more immediate incentives involving their deeply conservative base—and they are responding rationally.
Thanks to the gerrymandering that took place after the 2010 Census, Democrats would need to win the national popular vote by more than seven points  to take back the House, according to an analysis by Ian Millhiser at the Center for American Progress. That’s a whopping margin unlikely to happen anytime soon: even Obama’s relatively overwhelming win in November was just under 4 points. The reality is that House Republicans almost need not worry about the national vote—they are nearly invincible to that.
Rather, the only obstacle to staying in office are primary challenges from the right. And when the base hates citizenship for undocumented residents, supporting it is your one-way ticket out of Washington. The consultant class in D.C.—the elites that Sessions was thumbing his nose at—just won’t be able to force real immigration reform upon these members.
So can real reform pass with a majority of Republicans opposing it? In the Senate, even assuming an immigration bill gets unanimous Democratic support—no sure thing, given the number of Democratic Senators up for re-election in red states in 2014—you’d need five Republican crossovers. In the House, even if every Democrat supported a comprehensive immigration reform, seventeen Republicans would have to vote for it as well to ensure passage.
Maybe, maybe this happens. Forget bipartisanship—this is the only real hope for real immigration reform: a Democratic bill with a small handful of Republicans willing to walk the plank.
But it’s more likely that the Republican leaders of this new approach to immigration reform will bail out long before that happens, thus denying everybody cover and scuttling the whole deal. Alex Pareene noted yesterday  that Gang of Eight member Senator Lindsey Graham has a long, long history of pulling out of bipartisan negotiations at the last minute because of an objection he’d had the whole time anyway. (This familiar maneuver has allowed Graham to simultaneously portray himself as both a leading statesman and hardcore conservative, often with the help of a compliant Beltway press.) Since Graham is facing a South Carolina primary race in 2014, I’d bet almost anything he pulls the same switcheroo again.
Marco Rubio, too, has to first face Republican primary voters if he wants to be elected president in 2016. And in South Carolina last year, 49 percent  of GOP voters in this key primary state said that if a candidate supported even “limited amnesty,” it would make them “unacceptable” as a nominee.
Accordingly, Rubio may already laying groundwork for a Graham-esque two-step. Tuesday morning, Rubio slammed  Obama for a soft stance on border security the president had not yet taken, and said it “does not bode well in terms of what his role’s going to be in this or the outcome.” Later in the day, he told Rush Limbaugh—another powerful and dedicated foe of real immigration reform—that he would insist that any citizenship efforts be contingent upon certain border security “triggers,” likely in the form of certification by a panel of border state officials. This would probably kill the deal, because Democrats don’t want to give people like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer veto power  over citizenship for 11 million people.
Rubio can walk away if and when Democrats don’t agree to these triggers. He can tell Republican primary voters he stood up to the Democrats and ultimately opposed a citizenship process—yet, if he makes it to the general election, he can flip the frame and remind everyone that he was leading a push for comprehensive immigration reform. This may not be best outcome for the Republican party, but it’s the best outcome for Rubio’s 2016 prospects.
(In that case, by the way, he’d be following in the footsteps of the last leading Republican crusader for immigration reform, John McCain—thus making make Sessions’ prediction all the more prescient. McCain co-sponsored that doomed 2006 and 2007 push, which included a pathway to citizenship. But when it fell apart, he pretended in the primary he was never really for a path to citizenship anyhow. You may recall his infamous statement  in the primary debates that he would not have supported his own bill if it came for a vote.)
Talk about new electoral realities and real, comprehensive immigration reform is exciting—but ultimately, far too optimistic. The electoral realities are the same as they have ever been for the GOP, and ultimately Republicans will probably kill this bill. It’s not right, it’s not fair, but it’s simply the latest iteration of the prevailing political story of the past two years—Republicans can and will stop anything their ever-shrinking base wants them to.
In more disappointing news, read how Harry Reid and the Democrats capitulated on fillibuster reform .