WASHINGTON — As the fiscal fight roiling Washington nears its end, the White House is already signaling that it plans to use the political momentum it has gained during the shutdown fight to charge back into the immigration debate. And this time, Democratic pollsters and advocates say, they could actually win.
The final chapter of the current crisis hasn't been written yet, but Democrats in Washington are privately confident that they'll emerge with the upper hand over the conservatives in Congress who forced a government shutdown. And sources say the administration plans to use its victory to resurrect an issue that was always intended to be a top priority of Obama's second-term agenda.
Advocates argue the post-fiscal crisis political reality could thaw debate on the issue in the House, which froze in earlier this year after the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill that was led by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.
"It's at least possible with sinking poll numbers for the Republicans, with a [GOP] brand that is badly damaged as the party that can't govern responsibly and is reckless that they're going to say, 'All right, what can we do that will be in our political interest and also do tough things?'" said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration reform group America's Voice. "That's where immigration could fill the bill."
The White House and Democrats are "ready" to jump back into the immigration fray when the fiscal crises ends, Sharry said. And advocates are already drawing up their plans to put immigration back on the agenda — plans they'll likely initiate the morning after a fiscal deal is struck.
"We're talking about it. We want to be next up and we're going to position ourselves that way," Sharry said. "There are different people doing different things, and our movement will be increasingly confrontational with Republicans, including civil disobedience. A lot of people are going to say, 'We're not going to wait.'"
The White House isn't ready to talk about the world after the debt limit fight yet, but officials have signaled strongly they want to put immigration back on the agenda.
Asked about future strategic plans after the shutdown Monday, a senior White House official said, "That's a conversation for when the government opens and we haven't defaulted." But on Tuesday, Press Secretary Jay Carney specifically mentioned immigration when asked "how the White House proceeds" after the current fracas is history.
"Just like we wish for the country, for deficit reduction, for our economy, that the House would follow the Senate's lead and pass comprehensive immigration reform with a big bipartisan vote," he said. "That might be good for the Republican Party. Analysts say so; Republicans say so. We hope they do it."
The president set immigration as his next priority in an interview with Univision Tuesday.
"Once that's done, you know, the day after, I'm going to be pushing to say, call a vote on immigration reform," Obama said. He also set up another fight with the House GOP on the issue.
"We had a very strong Democratic and Republican vote in the Senate," Obama said. "The only thing right now that's holding it back is, again, Speaker Boehner not willing to call the bill on the floor of the House of Representatives."
Don't expect the White House effort to include barnstorming across the country on behalf of immigration reform in the days after the fiscal crisis ends, reform proponents predict. Advocates said the White House has tried hard to help immigration reform along, and in the current climate that means trying to thread the needle with Republicans who support reform but have also reflexively opposed every one of Obama's major policy proposals.
Democrats and advocates seem to hope the GOP comes back to immigration on its own, albeit with a boost from Democrats eager to join them. Polls show Republicans have taken on more of the blame from the fiscal battle of the past couple of weeks. But Tom Jensen, a pollster with the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, said moving to pass immigration reform could be just what the doctor ordered to get the public back on the side of the Republicans.
"We've consistently found that a sizable chunk of Republican voters support immigration reform, and obviously a decent number of Republican politicians do too," Jensen said. "After this huge partisan impasse, they may want to focus on something that's not quite as polarized, and immigration would certainly fit the bill since we see voters across party lines calling for reform."
In a political environment where the best-laid plans often amount to nothing, though, the White House may not be able to leverage momentum or even hang onto it for very long. While Republicans have suffered the brunt of the blame for the shutdown, Obama's approval ratings have also steeply declined in recent weeks and months.
What's more, a short-term deal on reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling could mean the current fiscal arguments will roll on at a significantly toned-down level. Continuing bad news coming from the implementation of Obamacare could take center stage, giving the Republicans a chance to rebuild their brand while the White House plays defense.
But immigration reform is something virtually all Democrats want to see back on in the spotlight ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At this point, the fight is really another debate between the White House and the conservative wing of the House GOP caucus, a situation that could equal déjà vu for political observers. Conservatives have lined up against a Senate-passed immigration bill, and House Speaker Boehner has refused to move the the Senate bill, despite its bipartisan Senate support.
Those dynamics don't make Democratic Senate veteran Jim Manley especially confident about the potential outcome of a new immigration fight, though he did agree that a return to reform is the logical move for the White House. Manley says he just hasn't seen many signs that conservatives have learned much from the current fiscal battle and its impact on Republican poll numbers. That means the reform debate is done before it starts.
"I'm not prepared to go bravado on this thing yet. Maybe someone else is, but not me," Manley said Monday. "The question is whether House Republicans, in particular, have learned anything about what we've gone through in the last couple weeks. There's obviously a group of Republicans in the Senate who have had it with being led around by Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. The question is how many minds are going to be changed in the House."
Sharry said immigration reform advocates have sketched out a calendar that has them pushing the House Republicans to take action on immigration reform through the end of the year. If that doesn't work, advocates will abandon the current legislative effort in favor of a program that seeks to punish Republicans in 2014 and urges Obama to use his executive power to meet as many of the reform advocates' goals as possible.
That's a tight timeline for a White House victory, especially considering reform may have a hard time making it to the front burner. Martha McKenna, a former political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said fiscal policy is likely to remain the top issue even after the government reopens.
"The economy will continue to take precedence even after the government reopens and the country moves beyond the debt crisis," she said. "The debate over the Democrats' economic policy that strengthens the middle class and the Republicans' economic policy that favors the wealthy will not be resolved in short order."
Jesse Ferguson, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the potential for a short-term fiscal deal means Congress is more likely to go through the last two weeks again than it is to move onto something else.
"It looks like this Republican Congress isn't ready to move forward, it's more like the movie Back to the Future," he said. "They seem more interested in continuing to fight these battles next year with their hand on a hot stove than in admitting they were wrong to hold the middle class hostage and move on from these battles that have left voters giving them record low ratings."