Thursday, July 11, 2013

For Immigration Reform, House Republicans Could Learn a Thing or Two From 'Angry Birds'

House Republicans on Wednesday will hold the most consequential backroom skull session on the domestic issue that will define President Obama’s second term.

If immigration reform passes, Obama will remain a powerful legislative force, and prospects for additional accomplishments on budget, taxes, and national security (though difficult) will be enhanced. If immigration reform fails, Obama’s lame-duck status will commence and irreversibly limit White House legislative ambitions.

This was true before Obama decided to delay for one year mandatory business compliance with the individual mandate in his health care law. But that delay has not only raised questions about the scope of presidential power (how often can Obama whimsically waive or ignore portions of a law he or a special-interest group find discomforting?), it also has solidified opposition throughout the House Republican Conference to any form of comprehensive immigration reform.

The piecemeal approach in the House is the only path to an immigration deal. That means the chamber will not complete its work until late this year at the earliest and probably not until early next year—if ever.

Setting aside politics for a moment, the process may matter more. Because if Republicans want to go to conference with the Senate on immigration, the means by which they get there will, in large measure, determine the outcome. That’s where Angry Birds, at least metaphorically, comes in.

House Republicans will start this month with a border-security bill drafted by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas. McCaul echoes his colleagues’ sentiments when he derides the last-minute Senate border-security amendment as a “bunch of candy” thrown in to “attract votes.” The core of the House GOP approach to immigration reform will start with border security. If it achieves coherence and success there, it may set the table for action for other parts of immigration reform.

But the House GOP will start slowly and see if it can generate more momentum. Think of it as renewable energy Republicans might actually like. One experienced GOP lobbyist very close to the House GOP leadership approach described matters this way: “They have to start with the easiest (relatively speaking) parts and move onto the next level of difficulty. It’s a little like a legislative game of Angry Birds, where each stage gets progressively more complicated and dangerous. And the pigs get bigger. But to win you have to earn more stars.”

As with most important cultural trends in America, I know little about and have no experience with Angry Birds. But as I understand it, the game requires birds to destroy pigs in pursuit of eggs. As things get more difficult, more birds with varied skills and talents become available, but the pigs grow larger and more resilient. But let me also focus on the “Angry” side of the metaphor, because it’s crucial to understanding the gut-level attitude that House Republicans have toward the Senate immigration bill.

“The Senate bill has zero momentum,” a top House GOP leadership aide told me. “We will not rush through a massive bill that hands massive new resources and powers over to a federal government that has shown itself unable to guard civil liberties or effectively manage those powers and resources.”

That sounds angry.

At this stage, other top House GOP aides will only predict passage of a border-security bill. They are uncertain about the other policy dimensions—any other dimension of immigration reform—including some form of a Dream Act, future flow for legal workers in agriculture, service or high-tech sectors, student visas, or employer verification.

House Speaker John Boehner has declared nothing will move off the floor without a majority of votes from the 234-member Republican conference. That is known as the “Hastert Rule,” for the former GOP speaker. Right now, border security appears to be the only bill that can meet that test.

At this stage, no one knows what the House will send the Senate for a conference committee to settle all immigration issues. If the House passes only border security, it concedes a vast array of policy to the Senate bill. That may be where House GOPers land, staking everything on border security to drive the hardest bargain. A very limited game of Angry Birds.

Complicating these strategic decisions is the embedded sense among House Republicans that House Democrats want immigration reform to fail.

“Nothing will go far enough for them,” another House GOP aide told me. “[House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi either wants a total victory or an issue to beat us up with. It is clear the House Democrats want to tank this.”

More anger.

Whether this is true or not does not seem to matter. That House Republicans believe it to be true means it will to some degree guide their decisions on timing, policy, and politics.

One last thought on politics. House Republicans see a 70-70 rule guiding their political calculations. One Republican summarized it this way: Trying to woo roughly 10 percent of the electorate (Latinos) that voted 70 percent for Democrats is not as wise as working in common cause with 70 percent of the electorate that voted 70 percent for Republicans (whites).

House Democrats see the problem differently, of course, and believe that Boehner’s fate hangs in the balance.

“Boehner will not be speaker anymore if he breaks the Hastert Rule,” a top House Democratic leadership aide told me. “I think that is absolute. I also believe Boehner will have to get very close on a conference report on a majority of House Republicans or his speakership is over. Given the nature of the House GOP membership, that would make any meaningful bill extremely unlikely.”

The last important question is whether outside pressure can or will nudge House Republicans toward the Senate bill. “The idea that any entity in the business community, or all business entities combined, can force us in a direction we do not want to go is laughable,” said a House GOP legislative strategist. “They have absolutely zero juice compared to Republican primary voters. If this is what [Sen. Chuck] Schumer [of New York] and his crew believe, they have zero idea of the thought process in our conference and, as a result, zero endgame.”

Zero endgame. I don’t know if that is a category in Angry Birds. But it is one in legislative politics, and it doesn’t portend success.


Heat builds on Australian Prime Minister over asylum boat tow-backs

LABOR is facing increasing pressure to reconsider turning back asylum-seeker boats and stare down threats of self-harm from passengers demanding they be taken to Australia.

Former high-level military officers have declared that turning back asylum-seeker boats en route to Australia is possible and would send a message to Jakarta that it needed to crack down on the people-smuggling trade.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke yesterday warned asylum-seekers who seized control of ships at sea by any means should face a criminal investigation and potential rejection of their asylum applications. His warning came after The Australian revealed that an attempt to return a group of asylum-seekers to Indonesia was aborted last week when they threatened to kill themselves. The group had been picked up in international waters by a Maltese-flagged oil and chemical tanker, the Sichem Hawk.

As Opposition Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison raised the issue of the Tampa in 2001 and flagged using Australia's elite SAS troops to secure vessels being confronted with such threats, Tony Abbott reiterated the Coalition would turn back boats where it was safe to do so.

"What we will ensure is that we are not played for mugs by the people smugglers and their customers. We will not be played for mugs," the Opposition Leader said. If it wins government at the election later this year, the Coalition will reintroduce the Howard-era policy of towing asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesian waters.

A joint communique issued after talks between Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last week - warning against "unilateral actions which might jeopardise such a comprehensive regional approach and which might cause operational or other difficulties to any party" - did not mention the Coalition but has been interpreted as criticism of its proposed tow-back policy.

Mr Burke said Mr Morrison had acknowledged "that when they say they'll tow the boats to Indonesia, they'll actually only go to the edge of Indonesian territory". And Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said that under John Howard only five or six of the 250 boats that arrived when he was prime minister were successfully turned back.

"Most of the other times when they tried to turn back boats, they couldn't," Mr Clare said. "The boat was sabotaged and the people (aboard) ended up going to Nauru or Christmas Island. The second problem is it's not safe."

But Mr Abbott told the ABC's 7.30 program last night that Indonesia had never explicitly approved the Howard government's turning around of asylum-seeker boats. "I'm not saying it's hazard-free but what has been done in the past can be done in the future," he said. He said the most dangerous thing of all was to do nothing, leading to more deaths at sea.

Former senior military officers yesterday insisted that because boats had been turned back before, it could be done again.

Retired major general Jim Molan told The Australian turning back the boats would send a strong signal to Jakarta that Australia was serious about stopping them.

General Molan, who served in Jakarta for five years and worked closely with the Indonesian national security system, said Indonesia could stop the boats fairly quickly if it wanted to. "The main reason to (send back boats) is as a signal to everyone involved, especially the Indonesian government," he said. "Indonesia just needs to know that the Australian government is serious about what it's doing."

Former navy chief Vice Admiral David Ritchie told The Australian that while the practice would be risky, it could be done. If the government told the navy to turn the boats back the navy would do it and do it well, he said.

He said attempts were made to sabotage boats in the past but that did not stop the process working.

"Of course (sabotage) is going to happen," he said. "Those people are desperate to get to Australia and you're trying to stop them so they'll do whatever they can."

Admiral Ritchie said he would probably agree with those who argued that Indonesia could not legally protest against boats being turned back by Australia if the people smugglers were using Indonesian-flagged boats with Indonesian crews.

General Molan said the most effective measure against the flow of boats was for Indonesia to use its existing laws against people smugglers. Indonesia had clamped down very effectively on terrorism within its borders and could do the same for the people-smuggling trade, he said. "They are not interested in doing it at the moment," he said. "Our challenge is to make them interested in doing it.

"We make them interested in doing it by encouraging them, by working co-operatively, by showing our resolve and by impressing on them the magnitude of the problem for Australia."

Current navy chief, Ray Griggs, who commanded a frigate during the 2001 border protection operations, has warned that turning back boats could prove dangerous for both the Australian crews and the people smugglers.

Vice Admiral Griggs is also known to be concerned about high levels of post traumatic stress among crews on border protection operations, particularly those who have had to repeatedly recover bodies from the ocean after asylum boat sinkings.

Former Australian Defence Force chief Chris Barrie said yesterday that because the opposition had so publicly declared its turn back the boats policy, it would be very difficult to do and the consequences could be "terrible".

Admiral Barrie said the people smugglers were very likely to sabotage boats by sinking them or setting fire to them.

He said the Howard government's policy was brought into effect without being "declared" and caught the people-smugglers by surprise. While it had worked for a time in the past, it would be very difficult and risky to do now, he said. "All of the safety conditions for saving life at sea must be met before you could even consider implementing such a policy," Admiral Barrie said.


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