Aside from abortion, immigration is the other major social issue that could lead to a big dust-up when it comes to conferencing the House and Senate bills. The final Senate bill prohibits any unauthorized immigrants from purchasing private health-care plans on the insurance exchange, whereas the House bill would allow them to buy private insurance but prohibits them from receiving any government subsidies to do so. When the White House tried to pressure the House to change its immigration provisions to resemble the Senate bill, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus revolted and threatened to vote against the legislation. While they managed to secure a victory at the time, the fact that both the Senate leadership and White House support the prohibition makes it pretty likely that the Senate restrictions will remain in the final bill.
However, it looks like the Democratic leadership is planning to make at least one concession to appease the pro-immigrant legislators. During the Senate negotiations, Robert Menendez—the only Hispanic lawmaker in the Senate—pushed for an amendment that would eliminate the five-year waiting period that is imposed on legal, newly naturalized immigrants before they are allowed to be eligible for Medicaid benefits. The Medicaid waiting period was created in 1996 during the conservative anti-immigration crackdown, and immigration advocates have long fought to remove the provision, arguing that tax-paying legal immigrants shouldn’t be denied basic government services. According to Menendez, eliminating the waiting period would potentially make about 600,000 adults newly eligible for Medicaid. While the provision was not included in Reid’s manager’s amendment to the Senate bill, Menendez “got a commitment from the Majority Leader to include it in conference,” Menendez spokesperson Afshin Mohamadi told TNR today.
Proposing another provision that would expand states’ Medicaid rolls—particularly to immigrants—is still likely to raise the hackles of the bill’s conservative opponents. And the House Hispanic Caucus could still rise up to protest the exclusion of unauthorized immigrants from the exchanges, as well as the cumbersome verification process that will have to be implemented. But it’s a compromise that may be more politically feasible—and one that rectifies a long-standing, undue form of discrimination against the country’s legal residents.
Suzy Khimm is a senior editor at The New Republic.