Over at The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol warns against two significant threats to the GOP's victory in November:
One is the increase in the debt limit, which Congress will have to deal with in the next month or two. The other is immigration reform, which the Senate has passed and which awaits a decision from the House leadership on how to proceed.
Kristol suggests the following policy trade: House fiscal hawks should keep their powder dry on the debt ceiling in exchange for House leadership agreeing not to take up immigration reform. According to Kristol, both issues could divide the Republican party, so, by avoiding contentious debates on them, Republicans could better keep the party unified heading into November.
As a matter of political strategy, this suggestion has some merit. Much of the basis for this merit comes down to leverage. On the debt ceiling, Republicans have minimal leverage. The financial dislocations caused by not raising the debt ceiling could cause significant economic disruption. Major voices in the media, the business community, and even the Republican party itself will decry not eventually raising the debt ceiling. Combine that public opposition with the fact that Republicans control only one branch of Congress, and you have a far-from-ideal bargaining position. A battle over the debt ceiling could enrage the grassroots and also allow Republican sympathizers of the Obama immigration agenda to marginalize grassroots conservatives (who are likely to oppose both raising the debt ceiling and the president's immigration plans). Both results could be problematic for Republicans. Furthermore, a pitched battle over the debt ceiling could alienate some independent voters. Risking that alienation with a tiny chance of success might be a mistake.
Meanwhile, on immigration, pro-worker Republicans (and the remaining pro-worker Democrats) have their least leverage right now. The Senate's passage of the Gang of Eight bill shows that a pro-worker vision of immigration reform has minimal traction in that chamber, and the president has made clear his willingness to disregard laws passed by Congress in pursuit of his own executive ambition.
Under those conditions, why pass sweeping immigration reform now? If Republicans do feel the need to pass immigration reform under President Obama, why not wait until 2015? If the GOP holds the House and gains seats in the Senate, Republicans would have a much stronger bargaining position on immigration (along with other issues) in 2015. There is no reason for the GOP to give away its future bargaining power, especially as there does not seem to be a clear electoral imperative for passing immigration legislation now. Only 3% of Americans consider passing immigration reform to be a top priority. Passing the president's immigration agenda will not help the GOP in most of the Senate races it needs to win in November 2014; indeed, passing such an agenda could do significant harm to GOP prospects in many states. There is much to be said on behalf of some immigration reform, but the status quo might be far preferable to the president's vision.
This legislative trade might be in the interests of the GOP: it could enhance party unity, allow Republicans to focus on a more forward-looking vision of conservatism, and not hurt Republicans with the middle. It might also be in the interests of fiscal hawks; a poor economy and terrible employment picture are two major forces driving current deficits, so holding off the president's big-government immigration agenda (as codified in the Senate bill) could be a major help in curbing future deficits.
In an ideal world, it would be best to get the nation's fiscal house in order. In an ideal world, it would be best to craft a piece of immigration legislation that affirms opportunity, welcomes immigrants into the civic space, and encourages widely enjoyed economic growth. But politics is about dealing with the imperfect. In the real conditions of the present, Republicans might be better off working to develop a revived conservative vision (rather than stealing from tired Beltway playbooks) while attempting to rebuild an enduring national coalition. Dividing the party against itself on the behalf of some lobbyists and consultants could distract from that larger project.