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Farm bill's fate in House bodes ill for overhaul of immigration

By Jennifer Steinhauer

New York Times


WASHINGTON » The story of the 113th Congress was on display during a single afternoon this week.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Republicans and Democrats forged a hard-fought path forward on a bill to overhaul the nation's immigration system. At the same time, the House was voting down the farm bill, historically one of the easiest legislative lifts for Congress.

Although both chambers have added more conservative Republican members over the past few election cycles and partisan divides have deepened, the House and Senate are set on disparate legislative trajectories that may well linger for the rest of this Congress and beyond, and may be a dark harbinger for immigration legislation.

"If you think this is hard," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. and one of the scores from his party who joined Democrats, for opposite reasons, to bring down the farm bill, "try getting 218 on a path to legal status."

Senate Republicans and Democrats have come to a compromise on various issues this year, even along the margins, passing drama-free measures like a farm bill, and the Violence Against Women Act. They appear to be working in earnest to come together on immigration, with each side seeking significant policy and political goals.

"This is not about saving the Republican Party or anything else," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key member of a Senate coalition on the immigration bill. "This is about something that is hurting the USA."

Across the rotunda, House Republicans have clutched even harder the conservative positions that are popular in largely gerrymandered congressional districts, if not among the majority of Americans. As such, bipartisanship has been largely limited to things like post office namings and the Permanent Electronic Duck Stamp Act.

The theory in the Senate is simple: If a bill can pass in that chamber with 70 or more votes, Democrats reason, then the House will be forced to take it up and pass their version of bills.

But that notion ignores the repeated evidence that many House Republicans are far more interested in using their floor as a place to send messages and uphold political principles. Their theory is that blocking things is less about doing nothing than about preventing something they dislike.

The farm bill is just the latest and most straightforward example of the House dynamic. The House measure called for far more significant cuts to food stamps than the Senate bill did and would have likely passed with even some Democrats and created a path toward a Senate compromise in a conference committee.

For many House Republicans, those cuts still did not go far enough. What is more, they piled on, adding amendments to allow states to drug-test food stamp applicants, and to require food stamp recipients to meet federal welfare work requirements. The result was more Democrats bailing from the bill, and too many Republicans still unmollified.

This pattern has repeated along a broad array of fiscal and social policy measures for nearly three years. For measures to extend student loan rates or payroll tax cuts, aid states hit by natural disasters, finance the United Nations and keep the government running, House Republican prescriptive social policy amendments have been their undoing, alienating Democrats, yet often not going far enough for their most-conservative blocs.

When it comes to immigration, that battle is almost certain to play out over the concept of whether or not immigrants here illegally can be given a road to citizenship.

All this leaves Speaker John A. Boehner with essentially two choices: pass bills with House Democrats, which is the political equivalent of cheering with Philadelphia Phillies fans at a Washington Nationals game, or let his conference pass bills that are so far to the right of anything that the Senate passes that compromise via conference committee becomes elusive.

The consequences for Boehner are far from clear; following every humiliating defeat on the House floor, predictions of the speaker's imminent loss of the gavel have become as predictable in Washington as mosquitoes in June. So far, the House is hard pressed to find a credible candidate willing to replace him as chaos manager.

The consequences for the party seem more predictable: While Democrats have been eager in the past to find a way to compromise with House Republicans on such things as keeping the federal government from shutting down, their tears over failed immigration legislation may be more of the crocodile variety.

Blaming Republicans for a failed immigration overhaul, however disappointing to those most invested in the policies, would be a political boon headed into the midterm election, the result of which seems likely to maintain the current dynamic on the Hill.

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