The Kennedy-McCain immigration bill may be dead, or it may be dormant. If the Senate revives and passes it, the House will take it up. Speaker Pelosi has said in the past that she won’t proceed without 70 Republican votes in favor of the bill, but Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told the Washington Post today that the bill can’t pass without 40 Republican votes.
If Democrats really like this bill, Pelosi and Emanuel could pass it in the House on a party-line vote without a single Republican. (There are no cloture votes in the lower chamber.) Their reluctance to do so says something about the politics of immigration.
There are 232 Democrats and 203 Republicans in the House. Republicans need a net gain of 15 seats in the 2008 elections to regain a majority. As Michael Tomasky has pointed out, 62 Democrats represent districts that gave majorities to Bush against Kerry in 2004, while only 8 Republicans represent districts that Kerry won. Many of those 62 Democrats are freshman in districts that have been colored red on the electoral map for a long time.
Emanuel knows, in other words, that many of these Democrats are going to be vulnerable if they vote for McCain-Kennedy and then have to explain their vote next year in a campaign against a secure-the-border-first Republican challenger. Every Republican vote for McCain-Kennedy in the House will let one more vulnerable Democrat off the hook. They can vote against the bill, mollify their conservative constituents, and blame it all on Pres. Bush and Republicans. The Democrats get to have the bill they want, with all the political benefits and none of the political dangers it entails.
House Republicans who enjoy being in the minority have clear reasons to go along with this scheme, as do those who find the policy arguments in favor of the Grand Compromise compelling, or those who lie awake at night worrying about the Bush domestic legacy. If there are 40 such Republicans, than a revived Senate bill could pass the House. If, however, the Stupid Party is not quite stupid enough to sign onto this suicide pact, then Pelosi and Emanuel will either have to gamble their majority on enacting immigration reform with Democratic votes only, or shelve the whole question.