There's a fleeting opportunity for Congress to do something important on immigration while in the calm eye of the storm between election seasons. It's a moment when politics and policy could intersect for the good of the nation. The time is now.
The Senate teed up the issue in June for Republicans in the House of Representatives when it passed comprehensive reform legislation with strong bipartisan support. President Barack Obama, who needs to finally deliver on his promise of reform, told a group of business leaders last week there are enough votes in the House to pass something similar.
Traditional supporters of Republicans, including business groups, farmers, churches and police, are beseeching recalcitrant GOP House members to fix what's broken. And unless Republicans somehow put this issue behind them, their efforts to win over Hispanic voters, who rejected them in droves in the 2012 presidential race, are doomed to fail, handicapping their bid to win control of the Senate or the White House.
In the real world outside the bubble of electoral politics, comprehensive reform -- enhanced border security, tighter workplace enforcement, rational legal immigration and a way out of the shadows and into compliance with the law for people here illegally -- would be a plus for national security, the economy and the rule of law.
With so many of the stars in alignment and strong signs of bipartisan agreement on border security, what could go wrong? Plenty.
The biggest obstacle to a deal is, as always, what to do about the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally. The Senate bill would give them provisional legal status and a difficult 13-year path to citizenship. That's out of the question for more than a couple dozen House Republicans and a tough sell for many others, including some Democrats.
Although a path to earned citizenship is the preferred goal, insisting it's the only way to go could scuttle reform. If it comes to that, legalization without eventual citizenship is a reasonable alternative.
Some type of lawful permanent residency would dramatically improve the lives of people here illegally. It would virtually eliminate the risk of deportation, and allow immigrants to work on the books, pay taxes, and travel to their native lands and return to the United States. Unlike citizens, they wouldn't be able to vote, or petition for their parents, siblings or married children to immigrate to this country. And unlike citizenship, their legal status wouldn't be essentially irrevocable. On balance, that's not a bad deal. But there are big hurdles on the path to compromise.
Rather than making progress on immigration, some Democrats may prefer to have the issue to use against Republicans in the 2014 and 2016 elections. That would be a shame; these Democrats should put the nation's interests ahead of their own.
Some House Republicans represent districts where voters are adamantly opposed to any legalization, which they consider amnesty. Those members could kill reform if House Speaker John Boehner continues to insist he won't bring any immigration bills to the floor that don't have the support of the majority of House Republicans. Boehner has occasionally abandoned that position in the past, most recently to end the government shutdown. He should walk away from it on immigration, too, allowing reform to pass with a combination of Republican and Democratic votes.
That way some Republicans -- those genuinely opposed to reform, or so angry with Obama they won't vote for any deal that could be considered a win for him, or so fearful of a tea party challenge in red states that they dare not support reform -- could go their own ways without paralyzing Congress and killing the change the nation needs.
That's how Congress used to work: with legitimate differences honestly aired, followed by compromise and majority rule. That's how it should work now.