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posted: 9/19/2013 5:00 AM

Immigration reform stuck in neutral

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Remember the Gang of Seven? It's the House bipartisan immigration reform working group -- used to be the Gang of Eight before Republican Rep. Raul Labrador quit in frustration -- and it has been rumored for months to be on the verge of releasing a comprehensive reform bill.

It still hasn't happened. And it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

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The group got almost nothing done during the August recess; the members barely kept in touch with each other. And then the concerns some Republican Gang members heard at town hall meetings convinced them that the proposal's security and enforcement measures must be strengthened before GOP colleagues would even consider them.

"What can we do to satisfy our guys that there is going to be border security?" asks one pro-reform Republican. The answer is not clear.

By definition, the GOP Gang members -- Reps. John Carter and Sam Johnson of Texas, plus Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida -- are the Republicans most open to crafting a comprehensive measure. If they can't come up with something that would appeal to more than a handful of their fellow Republicans, then things don't look good.

The job is harder now than it was in the spring. Since the Gang began work, Republican distrust of President Obama, already high, has grown considerably. When GOP lawmakers see the president enforcing parts of Obamacare while ignoring others; when they see him acting unilaterally on issues (the environment is one example) that should be the business of Congress; when they see him threaten to go around lawmakers on questions as diverse as immigration and war in Syria -- all those things make it harder for Republicans to vote for any measure that depends on the president to enforce it. Today, Republicans are even less inclined to go along with Obama than they were in June.

Most of the pressure to produce a bill seems to have disappeared. Recently, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sent Republican members an agenda for September and October. The House will work on a continuing resolution to fund the government, Cantor said. It will work on a measure to extend the debt limit. On a bill to reform the food stamp system. On Obamacare. And, of course, on Syria.

Only after touching on all those topics did Cantor mention immigration. "The Judiciary and Homeland Security committees have produced a number of specific bills which the House may begin considering this fall," Cantor wrote. "Before we consider any other reforms, it is important that we pass legislation securing our borders and providing enforcement mechanisms to our law enforcement officials."

Look at the qualifiers: The House "may" begin considering some bills -- then again, maybe not -- but it must actually pass border security and enforcement measures before any other proposals can even be taken up. Cantor left himself room to do anything, but plenty of reason to do nothing.

Then there's the problem of time. The House will of course be involved in whatever happens in Syria, but much more time-consuming will be the fight over a funding resolution. Republicans are deeply divided about it -- Speaker John Boehner and Cantor had to retreat from a proposed continuing resolution this week in the face of conservative opposition. Finding a way forward will take time. And that's before the House gets to the question of the debt limit.

Given all that, Cantor indicated the House might cancel a recess scheduled for next week. That will give lawmakers a little more breathing room.

But even if the House had all the time in the world, and an absolutely empty calendar, immigration reform would still be in deep, deep trouble. It's not failing because Congress doesn't have time to do it. It's failing because Congress cannot agree on how to do it.

As reform supporters envisioned it, this was to be the moment Washington debated an immigration bill widely seen as the signature achievement of President Obama's second term. Now, it's going nowhere fast. The president is distracted. And those Republicans who believe a Senate-style comprehensive reform measure is essential to improving the GOP's prospects with Hispanic voters are now a mostly silent minority.

Immigration reform will not disappear as an issue; its advocates in both parties are organized, well-funded, and determined. But the energy that just a few months ago seemed to be pushing reform inexorably ahead now appears completely dissipated. And there seems little chance it will come back, at least this year.

2013, United Features Syndicate Inc.

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