Democrats are bracing for a fierce fight over immigration on Capitol Hill if Hillary Clinton wins the White House on Nov. 8.
Clinton has promised to send a comprehensive immigration reform bill to Congress within her first 100 days in office if elected, and Hispanic groups plan to make sure she keeps her word.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who stands to become the new Senate majority leader if Democrats win control of the upper chamber, has also staked out immigration reform as a top priority, though he won’t discuss timing.But the prospect of a battle on immigration reform is causing jitters among Senate Democrats.
The party must defend 25 seats in the next election cycle, including seats in Republican-leaning states such as Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri and Montana — all of which Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seems likely to win.
Vulnerable Democrats facing reelection in 2018 know that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will seek to use an immigration reform bill against them.
“McConnell will be on the immediate hunt to win back the Republican majority, and the 2018ers will be gun-shy out of the gate,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.
“They’re worried about what can get done before 2018. They’re already freaking out.”
The other big piece of legislation many see as coming down the pike if Clinton is elected is an infrastructure investment package.
While liberal and centrist Democrats broadly support a push for infrastructure spending, some Democrats would rather see Clinton emphasize that issue over immigration. They say they want her to focus on jobs and the economy instead of becoming embroiled in a bitter, partisan fight over immigration reform — which they also argue could make an infrastructure push more difficult.
“You have only a couple of bites at the apple in your honeymoon,” the Democratic aide added, referring to the first hundred days of the new administration.
“Getting something done that can pass the House like an infrastructure bill is a benefit to the 2018ers. That will be at the front of everyone’s mind,” the source said. “They’ll be worried about passing immigration reform.”
Clinton’s campaign staff says she is equally committed to moving an infrastructure investment package and immigration reform in the first few months of the priority and doesn’t see it as an either/or proposition.
“In terms of big legislative items, she has said she wants to prioritize comprehensive immigration reform and an infrastructure jobs package in the first hundred days,” said Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon.
“Both of those issues are things that she’s discussed all the way through from the primary to the general. They are priorities that are consensus proposals that have strong support in the country, and thirdly they are both things that in a normal environment Republicans in the past have been inclined to support,” he added.
Fallon noted that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in concept supports both infrastructure investment and immigration reform.
“If she wins, it will be in the best interests of Republicans to want to work on those things since they are consensus proposals,” he said.
Clinton and other Democrats pushing immigration reform are betting that Republicans will conduct a post-election analysis — similar to the report produced after Mitt Romney lost to President Obama in 2012 — that will find they need to improve the party’s standing among Hispanic voters.
That, they think, will give Ryan and other Republican leaders strong incentive to work with Democrats on immigration reform instead of turning it into a partisan fight to knock off vulnerable red-state Democrats in 2018.
“I would expect if Hillary Clinton is successful, Republicans will again face a scenario similar to the 2012 aftermath where they penned an entire autopsy saying they needed to get right with key constituencies, including by enacting comprehensive immigration reform,” Fallon said.
Schumer told NBC’s John Harwood in an interview this week that he thinks both immigration reform and an infrastructure package can pass in the new Congress.
He said both policies come to mind because they are backed by Clinton, Ryan and himself.
Schumer predicted that “mainstream conservatives in the Senate and House” will tell “the hard right,” who are staunchly opposed to immigration reform, to “go take a hike” if they try to quash reform.
Schumer, however, is staying away from getting into any details on timing and what the bill might look like until after he knows if Democrats will have a Senate majority — and how big it is.
“We’ll wait and see. These are all the conversations that happen in a transition or early next year. We’re not going to speculate one way or the other,” said a Senate Democratic aide.
The Senate approved comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2013 with 68 votes. Every Senate Democrat backed it, including vulnerable members, some of whom were defeated in 2014 when the party lost its majority. Thirteen Republicans also voted for the package.
But the bill died in the GOP-controlled House when then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to bring a companion measure to the floor.
Some Democrats question whether the politics of the issue have changed after the emergence of strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican presidential primary.
Trump won the GOP nomination by pledging to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and taking a much harder stance against illegal immigration. He reiterated in Wednesday’s debate that giving illegal residents a path to citizenship would be unfair to millions of people who have waited in line to enter the country legally.
There is also skepticism about whether Ryan, who some think could be a White House contender himself in 2020, would schedule votes on immigration reform — especially a package that includes a path to citizenship, as Clinton wants.
Ryan’s office said Friday that he hopes he won’t be working with Clinton next year.
“Our focus right now is on defeating Democrats including Hillary,” said AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman.
Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who is close with Republican leaders and has backed immigration reform, predicts that it will be very difficult to pass immigration reform next year because Republicans don’t trust Clinton.
He acknowledged, however, that advocacy groups feel they need to reach out to white working-class voters who back Trump to repair the damage they feel this year’s divisive debate has done to their cause.
While Trump is trailing in the polls in several moderate Senate battlegrounds this year, such as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, he is doing well in red states where Senate Democrats face reelection in 2018, such as Indiana and Missouri.