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Congress’ fight over immigration reform could last a while

Let’s game out a potential agreement on border security.

There was the Christmas rush to try securing a deal before the holiday. The plan was to link an immigration accord to a massive international aid package for Israel and Ukraine requested by President Biden

The Senate stuck around Washington for a few extra days before Christmas. Talks even ran through one weekend in mid-December. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., partially delayed the Senate’s holiday recess to maintain momentum in the talks. However, few senators thought much of the effort. A meager 61 senators surfaced on the evening of Dec. 18 for a vote to confirm former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as the Social Security Administration Commissioner. 

It was the sparest attendance for any Senate vote since 56 senators cast ballots on an appropriations bill on May 28, 1959. 

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The 1959 tally was only rivaled by a scant 54 senators who showed up to vote on May 5, 1960. The issue at hand was more like the issue “afoot”: duties the government levied on lathes used to make shoes. The Senate voted to give the duties the boot. 

Border security talks are taking so long that senators may well burn through a few pairs of shoes before they strike a deal. Even though attendance was thin last week, Senate negotiators plodded ahead. Dropping things for the holidays would likely have cost the process momentum, such as it was. Maintaining any modicum of momentum is paramount if you consider the difficult path ahead for a border security/supplemental spending package. 

Talks resumed this week, remotely. One source signaled to Fox News that the negotiators might meet in person before Congress reconvenes on Jan. 8, if it is believed that face-to-face negotiations would help. In fact, Fox was told it is entirely possible the sides cannot even reach an agreement until the week of Jan. 8. Of course, it remains to be seen whether they can get a deal at all.

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Let’s consider a middle-of-the-road scenario here.

Imagine the sides reach a handshake agreement late next week, before Congress returns to session. At a minimum, it will take congressional legislative counsel a week or so to actually write the very complex, intricate changes to border and immigration policy. So that gets us toward the end of the first full week of January before the bill text is ready.

All the while, interest groups and factions in Congress will inevitably start to chip away at this provision or that one after details of the agreement begin to dribble out. You can anticipate that opposition from both parties could be fierce to any proposal as controversial and complicated as immigration. That is why even a deal may be far from a true agreement. 

So this could drift until mid-January for the Senate to begin to process this proposal — even working on an expedited timetable. 

However, even if things go swimmingly, there is no guarantee the Senate can move quickly. Sixty votes are necessary to extinguish filibusters to both start debate and close debate on the bill. So bet on the Senate spending at least a week-and-a-half on this measure — even on a fast track.

However, what we neglected in this narrative is the realpolitik of January and February on Capitol Hill.

The first two months of the year might qualify as a parliamentary Superfund site. 

For starters, the government could run out of money on Jan. 19. Even if lawmakers limp along past that deadline and avoid a government shutdown, they will get a second crack at it on Feb. 2.

Yes. Groundhog Day. 

You cannot make this stuff up. 

No Punxsutawney Phil, here. 

We’ll see if “Louisiana Mike” and “Brooklyn Chuck” can pull a marmot out of their hat to avert a shutdown. Otherwise, look for clues. If they see their shadows, the government may operate for six weeks on a Continuing Resolution. If they don’t see their shadows, the stopgap bill may only last for four. 

You think this is daft? Considering the perils of Congressional prognostication, you could do worse than relying on a soothsaying rodent from central Pennsylvania. 

The potential of a government shutdown will consume everything on Capitol Hill. 

Of course, some longtime Capitol Hill observers might suggest that they Velcro the border security/supplemental aid package onto one of the spending bills. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., argued against that. But you never know, when you consider how few legislative trains might depart from the Congressional station early next year. 

The House will also delve into a potential impeachment of the president. That will demand significant oxygen on Capitol Hill. The House will likely hold a vote to hold Hunter Biden in contempt of Congress for failing to appear for a deposition before the Oversight Committee. Lawmakers still haven’t sorted out a potential plan to reform the foreign surveillance program commonly known as FISA. 

Any and all of this could sidetrack efforts to finish the border/supplemental package. 

And that’s if there’s ever a deal.

So, don’t bank on a vote right away in January. In fact, a Senate vote could come in late January or beyond. 

Then, on to the House. 

And that is a complete wild card.

Fox is told that Johnson understands that Israel and Ukraine need aid and can’t wait too long for that to materialize. But advancing any sort of immigration package through the House which deviates from the strict border security plan Republicans approved in the spring (known as “HR 2”) is going to be a monster. Johnson still has goodwill among House Republicans. But he doesn’t have much political capital. That account will dwindle even further — hinging on what Johnson decides to do about government funding. Remember that it’s far from clear what if anything the House can do to actually fund the government. So political problems for Johnson could impede passage of any border security/supplemental plan.

That’s to say nothing of problems on the Democratic side of the aisle.

As much as there are many Republicans who won’t vote for any immigration plan, there are likely just as many Democrats who will oppose what’s framed as “border security.” Liberals will watch to see what changes are made to parole and asylum. Potential migration limits could be problematic. And then there are enforcement questions. 

Now you see how this could easily slip into February. And frankly, it may go deeper into the new year if a government shutdown or impeachment capsizes the Congress.

So, no one truly thought there was any realistic chance of moving any sort of border security/supplemental spending package in December, despite the rush. 

And it may be rushing things to try to complete this by February or March. 

   

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