By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
Published: May 1, 2013
WASHINGTON — As a gun safety bill dissolved on the Senate floor last month, a group of eight senators — some who had supported the failed measure — had already moved on to a policy battle they found more promising: reinventing the nation’s troubled immigration system.
But despite broader Republican support for an immigration overhaul, the inability of Congress to pass modest gun legislation involving background checks is a warning for the immigration bill’s journey.
Consider that on paper, immigration is actually a harder sell back home to voters. Although 86 percent of adults in a Washington Post/ABC News nationwide poll last month said they favored background checks for people buying guns at guns shows or online, a poll by the same news organizations found that only 64 percent said they supported a program giving illegal immigrants the right to live here legally if certain requirements were met.
The warning does not mean failure, especially since most Republicans believe that immigration changes, unlike gun legislation, would help them politically. But it does indicate that the road to consensus on immigration will be far bumpier than the narrative on Capitol Hill suggests.
“There was a lot of Washington talk about the gun bill’s possibilities, but I never saw that reflected in the people at home,” said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, who has served since 1993. “Now there is all this buzz about the immigration reform, and that is not reflected, either.”
Like the gun legislation, the immigration bill, an 800-page whopper conceived among the eight lawmakers, must go through the Judiciary Committee, where the sharp partisan differences that defeated the gun bill are already on display.
Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the lead Republican on the committee, has expressed skepticism, as has Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. Last month, Mr. Grassley sparred with Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, in a hearing over Mr. Grassley’s suggestion that the origins of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings should be part of the immigration debate.
Just as the fight over the gun bill pivoted on a single policy disagreement — the question of keeping records on background checks — single divisive issues like whether or not immigrants here illegally should be given a pathway to citizenship can undermine other components to legislation on which there is broad agreement.
President Obama underscored on Tuesday how disagreements over basic principles can thwart a bill. Should a proposal from House Republicans not meet what he called “basic criteria,” including a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, “then I will not support such a bill,” he said.
Certain buzzwords in the gun debate became toxic to supporters of gun control. Opponents insisted, for example, that a new background-check law would result in gun registries, which the legislation explicitly would have forbidden. Similarly, proponents of strong border security will most likely be skeptical of the government’s commitment to improve it, which House Republicans say is essential, and keep beating that drum.
“I think the opposition is counting on mistrust of government, hatred of Obama and the idea that Congress can’t get anything right to combine as the pathway to no,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.
Many Congressional Republicans say they are bracing for Mr. Obama to blame them for any problems with the legislative process.
“I do get the sense that everything for this administration seems to be a day-to-day tactical decision, rather than a legislative strategy of how to get things passed,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri. “That’s not the same as doing what it takes to get work done.”
Process could also prove an enemy. Senate leaders will need 60 votes to even start on a bill, but before then they will have to ponder numerous amendments from the left and right — all of which could injure the bill’s chances in both camps. Mr. Obama, in fact, fought for a “poison pill” amendment in 2007 to phase out a guest-worker program favored by Republicans that when attached to the bill helped sink it.
Some House members have already started to go their own way with far more modest, incremental proposals. Republicans there will certainly produce a far different bill from the Senate’s. Should the Senate and House end up in a conference to reconcile two bills, the final measure may well end up closer to that produced in the Senate, as has been the case with other bills that have gone to conference.
If this happens, Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, might be presented with the excruciating choice of bringing a more liberal version of legislation to the House floor and failing to close the deal on immigration reform that many in his party believe is needed.
Perhaps the most important factor in the bill’s favor is its broad support among a wide variety of constituencies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the agricultural industry, labor unions and many church groups. Unlike the gun legislation, the immigration bill has no strong single opponent analogous to the National Rifle Association. Immigration legislation also has a compelling advocate in the Senate.
Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who has the greatest stake in the success of the measure, has made broad efforts to get in front of critics, something that the gun-control lobby — more like the immigration advocacy movement in 2007 — did not really do.
“Here’s my encouragement to my colleagues who don’t agree with the bill that we’ve crafted,” Mr. Rubio said on the Senate floor last week. “Change it. Let’s work on changing it. If you believe that what we have today is broken, if you believe that the status quo on immigration is chaos and a disaster, if that’s what you believe, as I do, then let’s solve it.”
The gun measure, for all the advocacy it got from the families of Newtown, Conn., and other victims of gun violence, did not have a supporter with the ambitions of Mr. Rubio behind it. This could prove to be the bill’s best hope, or Mr. Rubio’s greatest risk.
“The political imperative on immigration compared to guns is that if you take down Rubio, you take down the Republican Party,” Mr. Sharry said. “But we understand trying to get something in a divided Congress with a bill that the president supports is a tough call. We have a real roller coaster ride ahead.”