Immigration reform was supposed to be different than health care reform. A few wonks aside, Republicans have never had any real interest in expanding health insurance coverage to those who lack it. But there are plenty of influential figures in the Republican coalition who are motivated to reform immigration laws—whether political tacticians like Karl Rove who can read demographic charts or business owners who want more reliable streams of immigrant labor. But it's now looking increasingly as if the never-ending Republican war on health care reform could be helping block immigration reform just when it finally had a real chance.
Jonathan Chait just touched on part of this dynamic: the Republicans' noisy critique of all the deal-making and compromises that went into the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which served the party quite well in fomenting opposition to the law (the Cornhusker Kickback! The Big Pharma giveaway!), has now morphed into a more general stance of decrying all horse-trading in all big legislation, period. Chait writes: "A rational legislative strategy would consider the relative benefits of a law to maintaining the status quo, and weigh the possibilities of a better bill emerging over time. But tea-party logic simply regards the existence of compromise as disqualifying. The moral purity of opposition has become untethered from any political or policy objective, and appears to have sprouted into an actual freestanding principle...The hatred for legislating has gained a strong enough hold over the conservative mind as to render them unable to consider the merits of any bill at all."
But I would argue that this is only the half of it. What has been so remarkable about the opposition to Obamacare is that it has involved not only retrospective carping about how the bill was passed but an ongoing attempt to sabotage it, even after a Supreme Court majority led by John Roberts upheld it as the law of the land. Congressional Republicans are refusing to fund the implementation of the law, are warning sports leagues against participating in public information campaigns about the law, and are refusing to consider legislative tweaks to address the inevitable problems that have emerged as the law comes closer to full execution, while outside conservative groups launch a new push on the airwaves to turn the public against the law before it goes into effect. So explicit has this nullification strategy become that it has started getting the attention of normally sanguine conventional-wisdom guardians such as NBC's First Read, which cut loose with this remarkable broadside yesterday:
...We now have reached the stage in this era of increased polarization where EVERYTHING has become a partisan fight, even carrying out a law that has been passed and upheld by the Supreme Court. The mantra that “elections have consequences” has been thrown out the window and replaced by “everything must be a fight.” And this all raises the question: What’s the line between fighting for your ideology and ensuring that the government that pays your salaries actually works—or even attempts to work? At some point, governing has to take place, but when does that begin? We know what opponents will say in response to this: These are bad laws, and we have to do whatever it takes to stop them. But at what point does an election have a governing consequence?
What does this have to do with immigration reform? Well, because of the absolute refusal by congressional Republicans—and many GOP governors and state legislators around the country—to accept the Affordable Care Act as law of the land and reckon with any complications that might arise in its implementation, the Obama administration has been forced to carry off necessary tweaks and adjustments on its own, via regulatory fiat. It's had to do this even when it comes to making revisions that Republicans favor, such as delaying the mandate for large employers to provide health coverage for workers—as Republicans see it, this tweak makes an unacceptable law slightly more acceptable, and thus must be opposed.
Such unilateral tweaks by the administration, in turn, have Republicans decrying what they see as extra-constitutional nigh-dictatorial overreach. And it's taken no time for declamations against the administration's regulatory freelancing on Obamacare to turn into general paranoia about what the administration might conspire to do with an immigration law. Steve Benen noted that this started with a Washington Examiner column by Conn Carroll. Next thing you knew the paranoia was being voiced on the House floor by Louisiana Rep. John Fleming (whom you may recall as the fellow who complained that high taxes left him with only $600,000 each year to feed his family). "One of the biggest fears we have about the Senate amnesty bill ... is we can't trust the president," Fleming said. "We can't trust him...Whatever we pass into law, we know he's going to cherry-pick. How do we know that? ... ObamaCare; he's picking and choosing the parts of the law that he wants to implement. This president is doing something I have never seen a president do before: in a tripartite government with its checks and balances, we have lost the balances. We have a president that picks and chooses the laws the he wants to obey and enforce. That makes him a ruler. He's not a president, he's a ruler."
So there you have it: by attempting to sabotage a law of the land they reject, Republicans have made it increasingly easy for their more outspoken members to argue against legislation many of their leaders support. No one said nullification isn't volatile stuff to play with.
*Addendum: The statement released by the House GOP Wednesday evening only confirmed the Obamcare/immigration dynamic. It read in part: "The president has also demonstrated he is willing to unilaterally delay or ignore significant portions of laws he himself has signed, raising concerns among Americans that this administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate."
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis