You know how you can tell when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is about to berate and castigate Republicans? When he says in a speech that, “I’m not here today to berate or castigate Republicans.”
Thus it was at Wednesday’s Hispanics in Politics breakfast at Dona Maria’s restaurant downtown, where a standing-room-only crowd showed up to hear Reid talk issues. And when it came to comprehensive immigration reform, Reid was clear about whom to blame: Republicans.
The Senate last year passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that had bipartisan support, a bill that landed with a dull thud in the House of Representatives, where it’s been stalled ever since. “Republicans in the House, led by [Speaker] John Boehner, have done nothing. Nothing,” Reid said. “I can’t imagine why the Republicans are doing what they’re doing.”
And Reid made no secret of one Republican, in particular, who he holds responsible: Rep. Joe Heck. Why doesn’t Heck go to Boehner and ask him to bring immigration reform legislation to the floor for a vote, Reid asked.
(Answer: He has! Repeatedly, in strong language, and as recently as the week before the July 4 break. Thus far, however, Heck has been insufficiently persuasive, as President Barack Obama has said Boehner called him and told him no bill will be voted on this year.)
“Watch what Heck has said and continues to say, trying to be something that he isn’t,” said Reid, a line that drew applause from the crowd.
Reid repeated a line he’s been using on the campaign trail in recent days, saying a majority of Democrats and Republicans would support comprehensive immigration reform if Boehner would allow it to come up for a vote. “It is wrong that Republicans in Congress disagree with the people they’re supposed to represent,” Reid said.
“I don’t know who they [Republicans] represent,” he added. “I don’t know who Dr. Heck represents.”
And when a member of the audience asked Reid what she could do to help the cause of immigration reform, Reid was blunt: “In the short term, you should help elect [Heck’s Democratic opponent] Erin Bilbray.”
Now, at the risk of aggravating Reid’s stomach (he once told me a column of mine defending Heck on the immigration issue made him want to vomit), I must ask: What would Democrats like to see Heck do, that he has not already done, in order to get immigration legislation to the floor?
Yes, Heck could sign a discharge petition to move the Senate’s version of reform to the floor. (In the House, the speaker has near-absolute control over what bills are considered. One of the few exceptions is if lawmakers get at least 218 signatures — a majority.)
Think Progress reported back in April that 190 lawmakers — all Democrats — had signed the discharge petition for immigration reform. Heck could add his name, but there are two problems. One, his signature would not make a difference, and two, he doesn’t support some details of the Senate bill. But yes, in order to get debate moving, Heck could sign the petition and then try to amend the parts of the bill he doesn’t like, assuming the bill actually gets to the floor and, if so, such amendments are allowed.
Heck could also try to identify more like-minded Republicans, those from districts with significant minority populations, and perhaps form a temporarily coalition of GOP members who want a vote, magnifying their individual voices and putting pressure on leadership. (Perhaps new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., might help?)
What else? Heck could take to the floor and make public speeches about wanting a vote on the issue. He could issue more news releases, saying again how he’s disappointed in House leadership for failing to bring the issue up. He could give more media interviews, in which he denounces the speaker for standing in the way.
But would that really change things? If criticism from the bully pulpit of the White House, from the lips of the president of the United States himself hasn’t moved Boehner, if the obvious political downside to Republicans hasn’t changed Boehner’s mind, if the moving plight of millions of real people caught up in the vagaries of the immigration system isn’t enough to get the speaker to act, would criticism from a sophomore member from Nevada do the trick?
Thus far, Heck has a.) said publicly he wants to vote on the issue, b.) come out in favor of a pathway to citizenship, c.) decried those in his own party who have called the Senate bill “amnesty,” d.) criticized his own leadership in print for failing to bring the bill for a vote and e.) repeatedly asked leadership for a vote.
I believe Heck would vote for a comprehensive immigration reform bill in a New York minute if it came to the floor. In fact, Boehner’s recalcitrance is actually hurting Heck in his race, where Bilbray and her allies are constantly attacking the incumbent for the lack of progress on the issue, the resolution to which is obviously out of his hands. Blame Heck for being unable to persuade enough of his colleagues and the elected leaders of the House of the rightness of his cause, blame him for not being loud enough or annoying enough in advocating for it, but don’t blame him for the lack of a vote. That much, at least, is not on him.
UPDATE: Bilbray, in a Twitter exchange with me this afternoon, called on Heck to “lead by example,” sign the discharge petition and start a floor debate over the bill. I asked her if she’d sign a discharge petition for a bill that she didn’t support. Her reply: “If I agreed with most of it, yes. Current Congress is paralyzed. Families are suffering.”
So, the ball is back in Heck’s court: Bilbray said she’d sign a discharge petition for a bill that she mostly agreed with, in order to start debate on an important issue. Will Heck?