So that's how you get reluctant Republican senators on board with immigration reform. You do it the old-fashioned way: You pay for it.
By committing a stunning $30 billion to secure the nation's Southern border, hiring thousands of federal agents, committing to the construction of 700 miles of fencing and taking other measures normally associated with securing a combat zone in a time of war, the Senate may have just bought itself a veto-proof majority. Who would have thought it?
Of course, all of this was possible only because of the recent Congressional Budget Office report that immigration reform is a net positive for the U.S. Treasury. Sure, it means spending money on the 11 million undocumented immigrants who will be seeking a path to citizenship, but it also means collecting taxes from them. Over the next decade, the plus side beats the negative, $459 billion to $262 billion, which makes $30 billion to round up the necessary votes look like quite a sensible little investment — a greater than 5-to-1 return on federal spending.
At least it's sensible if such dramatic spending on border security — surely unprecedented in human history — is actually going to move forward. Even those senators who have pushed for enhanced border security in the past seemed a little shocked last week by the massive commitment called for in the compromise.
Sen. John McCain, one of the more reasoned voices in this debate, openly questioned whether the money was being particularly well spent. Illegal crossings have already slowed without it, and agents now arrest only about one-fifth as many illegal immigrants as they did a decade ago. Perhaps the best justification, some speculated, is that it makes Americans confident that the border is secure — that at least 90 percent of those who attempt to cross it illegally are apprehended.
Let's take just a moment to contemplate how ridiculous this circumstance truly is. The GOP, the party that is supposedly against growing the federal government, has successfully convinced a bipartisan coalition of Senators to embrace a huge increase in spending, most of it to hire agents that nobody seems to believe are actually necessary for anything more than public relations.
Now, that's Washington politics at its best: Big spending for little results other than appearances and giving politicians political cover by turning on their fundamental political principles.
We would be tempted to devote much energy to ridiculing this further, except it's increasingly difficult to believe immigration reform is going anywhere in the House, where Speaker John Boehner appears to have little to no control over his majority. The recent failure of the farm bill — a measure arguably more dear to the Republican core constituency than immigration reform — suggests that he will be unwilling (or unable) to push through most anything of substance.
Making matters worse, Mr. Boehner is now making noises about applying the so-called Hastert rule and will not push for an immigration reform bill that is not supported by a majority of his party. Will the tea party wing agree to $30 billion in new spending on agents, fencing and spy drones even if it's paid for by immigration reform five times over? That's a little hard to believe. Granted, Mr. Boehner has talked tough before about not bringing to a vote bills that don't have majority support in his caucus only to do the sensible thing in the end, but there are only so many times he can pull that stunt.
Make no mistake, the Senate compromise does at least take away border security as a legitimate issue in the debate. Those who raise it now will be exposed for what they are — opponents of immigration reform who are simply looking for any excuse to quash it. But if conservatives couldn't swallow spending money to feed the poor in the farm bill, will they be able to tolerate spending it on the bureaucracy?
No wonder Democrats were so quick to agree to the $30 billion in mostly useless spending. They don't have much to lose, particularly if the House takes the blame for shooting down an immigration bill that may pass the Senate with a 70-vote majority.
The House may have to fall back on a Plan B, approving a bill that addresses border enforcement only or one that reforms the temporary visa system critical to farmers, but there's no guarantee Democrats will go along for the ride, which means the same result in the end — no immigration reform this year as promised. That would be an unfortunate result for this country, but especially for a party quickly losing favor with Latino voters.