Democrats beg Obama: Please don't offer your own immigration bill

David Frum gave him the same advice vis-a-vis gun control last month. Anything O touches will be instantly polarized and generate entrenched GOP opposition, so if he’s serious about getting something done, why wade in? Simple answer: Because he knew no major gun-control legislation was going to pass regardless of whether he intervened or not. In which case, why not earn some goodwill with his base by using the bully pulpit to push one of their pet causes? Even if gun control goes down in flames in Congress, he’s given the issue some legs which Democrats might be able to use against the GOP in 2014.

Immigration’s different. Republicans are panicked over demographics and ready to cave on some sort of comprehensive reform. If O jumps in this time, he really might cost Democrats a valuable deal. Memo from top Latino party members to The One, then: Shut up.

Some senior Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus used a private White House meeting Friday to urge President Obama not to unveil his own immigration legislation, for fear of blowing up delicate bipartisan talks, Democratic sources tell CNN…

In terms of substance, sources familiar with the both proposals, say the bipartisan Senate framework includes a border security trigger that the President’s plan does not include; specifically, the path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants would not open up until a council of border officials verifies that the border is secure…

“It would be a sabotage of the process [if Obama released his own bill],” said one immigration reform advocate familiar with internal discussions but not able to speak freely on the record.

To my amazement, some commentators on the center-right think Obama might want to sabotage the bipartisan bill so that he can keep using immigration as a wedge issue against the GOP and/or deny Rubio credit for a “major legislative achievement” ahead of 2016. Could O really be that much of a sucker? He has a chance to set millions of illegals on the path to citizenship, which, judging by current electoral trends, will mean millions of more Democratic votes on balance at some point in the not-distant future, and he’s going to pass on that so that he can keep on demagoging the GOP for a few more years? Wouldn’t that actually be a dream scenario for Republicans? They’ve got McCain, a former party nominee, and Rubio, a likely future nominee and the party’s biggest Latino star, out there in front of the cameras today talking up the virtues of reform. If Obama wades into this and the whole thing falls apart, the party can point to those two as proof that their heaviest hitters were prepared to pass something until O screwed everything up. Result: Credit to Rubio for having tried, blame for The One for meddling when he didn’t have to, and no new weak-tea “comprehensive” bill.

Beyond that, why would Obama try to kill the bill in hopes of preserving a wedge issue when he can pass the bill and preserve the wedge issue anyway? That was the point of my post this morning. If the GOP’s goal here is to defang Democratic attacks among Latinos, then it’s not a matter of caving once. They’ll have to cave repeatedly to Democratic demands at various points in the process. And here’s the very first one, courtesy of Greg Sargent. Remember, according to the bipartisan plan, there’ll be a commission composed of southwest border-state governors and AGs plus “community leaders” who’ll let Congress know when they think upgrades to border security are sufficient. This is supposed to be the key concession to immigration hawks — Congress won’t get to work on citizenship for people who are already here until we’ve done enough to make sure that there won’t be millions more crossing the border in the future. Except that, per Sargent, Democrats now claim that the commission’s findings will be … nonbinding.

I’ve now got clarification from Senate staff working on the bill, and it turns out that the enforcement commission’s judgments will only be advisory, and are entirely nonbinding. Congress’ actions will not be dictated by what this commission concludes; neither will actions taken by the Department of Homeland Security. The citizenship process will be triggered by other means (more on this soon).

This is central to the debate. If this commission had the power to dictate when the citizenship process begins, it could endanger the entire enterprise by giving people like Jan Brewer veto power. Second, this enforcement commission is being seen as a major concession Republicans won in exchange for agreeing to grant citizenship to the 11 million.

But the commission isn’t, for all practical purposes, really a major concession at all. If you look at the framework released by the bipartisan group of eight Senators today, it never quite says directly that the citizenship process can’t move forward until the commission reaches its findings. Rather, it says the plan creates a commission that will make a “recommendation” on when border security has been achieved, and doesn’t specify that this recommendation is what triggers the citizenship process.

In other words, the commission is a trigger that doesn’t trigger anything. Congress can get to work on citizenship regardless of what the commission says. A “source close to Rubio” e-mailed Sargent after he posted that to emphasize that Rubio thinks “all of the enforcement mechanisms must be in place and operational before a pathway to citizenship is made accessible to undocumented immigrants” and that the commission’s findings will be a “central component” in judging that, but we’ll see. The fact that Democrats are already working to neuter an already neutered border-enforcement gimmick like a blue-ribbon commission before the “comprehensive” bill has even been drafted tells you everything you need to know about their true ambitions here. In fact, I wonder if that’s the real reason why Obama is drafting his own, even more left-wing immigration bill. If negotiations in the Senate start to stall over this one, O could try to float a more radical proposal to make the Senate bill seem “moderate” by comparison, which might shake loose a few extra Republican votes for it. He wouldn’t be sabotaging the Senate bill by introducing his own, in other words, he’d be giving some GOPers cover to support it on grounds that it’s “too conservative” for Obama.

But I doubt he’ll float his own bill. He sounds pretty excited about the Senate plan, if Jay Carney is any indication.

Update: Just thinking: What incentive does Rubio have to vote yes on the final bill, assuming it resembles the outline we’ve heard today? Most of the political capital he’s going to earn from this process will come not from his vote but from his having appeared repeatedly on TV and in print recently to make the case for immigration reform. He stood out there today with McCain and Schumer to support bipartisan compromise. The goal here, in terms of his 2016 ambitions, is to brand himself as a leader who believes in the immigrant dream and wants to find a way to legalize illegals who are already here. He’s already basically done that. Now he has to worry about the GOP primaries, and the way to do that is to find a way to break with the McCain/Schumer group somehow. The disagreement over whether the commission’s findings should be nonbinding is one possibility. Then he can vote no on the bill and point to that as proof in the primaries that he was serious about enforcement while pointing in the general election to the fact that he was a visible leader in the reform effort. Anyone want to bet against that?