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Did shutdown 'poison the well' for immigration reform?

Gary Cameron / Reuters file

A woman holds up a sign during a protest rally for immigrants rights on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Oct. 8, 2013.
The sign reads "Justice and dignity for all U.S. immigrants."

Prospects for a comprehensive immigration reform bill remain cloudy after a bruising shutdown fight for Republicans that left hard feelings in Washington even as activists continue to push their cause. 

“The president’s actions and attitude over the past couple of weeks have certainly poisoned the well and made it harder to work together on any issue,” said a GOP leadership aide asked about the chances of major immigration legislation making it to the White House. 

Republican leaders say they remain committed to fixing the nation’s broken immigration system. But, as the dust settles from the shutdown mess, both sides say that the time isn’t exactly optimal for a Kumbaya moment. 

Now that the government shutdown is over, how will leaders on Capitol Hill approach immigration reform? USA Today's Alan Gomez discusses.

“There will definitely have to be a cooling off period,” said Marshall Fitz, the director of immigration policy for the progressive Center for American Progress. Republicans hold "a sense of, ‘Yes, we lost, but we won’t back down,'” he said. "It certainly feels like the fever has not broken.” 

The ink wasn’t even dry on the bill to end the debt impasse Wednesday night before the president revived the issue of immigration reform as a top domestic priority. 

“Let's not leave this problem to keep festering for another year or two years or three years,” President Barack Obama said, even as House Republicans prepared to swallow a debt bill that contained almost no concessions from Democrats. “This can and should get done by the end of this year.” 

That would mean cooperation across the aisle – and between both chambers of Congress – in the fewer than 25 remaining legislative days before lawmakers leave town for the holidays. 

The comprehensive immigration reform effort stalled over the summer after the Senate passed sweeping legislation to overhaul border security, require employer verification of workers’ status and create a lengthy path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. House Republicans declined to put that bill on the floor of the lower chamber, instead working on smaller pieces of immigration legislation. 

The logic for some supporters of reform is that – if House Speaker John Boehner put the Senate-passed immigration reform bill on the House floor, it would pass with a bipartisan majority, similar to Wednesday’s margin on the must-do debt limit bill. 

In an interview with Univision, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that he hopes the shutdown fight means the end of Boehner's refusal to bring legislation to the floor that doesn't have the support of the majority of Republicans. 

"If immigration were brought to the floor tomorrow it would pass overwhelming in the House of Representatives, overwhelmingly," Reid said. "The American people want it, it would reduce the debt by a trillion dollars. It’s long overdue."

But there's no indication that scenario is more likely now than it was for the months when Boehner insisted he would stick with the House’s “step-by-step” process instead. Despite warnings that the GOP may be doing permanent damage to its brand by failing to take action on a comprehensive bill, there’s little appetite among many House Republicans to take up another controversial issue that would require legislative diplomacy with Democrats, who they say negotiated in “bad faith” on the debt crisis. 

The House has instead been working on smaller pieces of immigration legislation designed to strengthen border security, create a guest worker program and require employment verification. Another proposal being worked on by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would allow some children who were brought the United States illegally as children to obtain legal status. 

But many House members are concerned that even piecemeal legislation that passes the lower chamber would lead to a “conference” with the Senate bill that would inject Democratic principles: chief among them being a path to citizenship – or at least legalization -- for most of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.  That’s something many conservatives decry as “amnesty” that’s unfair to legal immigrants.

Even some Republican backers of a comprehensive reform effort say that passing anything that requires negotiation with Democrats is a bad idea. 

“For us to go to a negotiation, to the negotiating table with President Obama after what he has done over the last two and a half weeks, I think would be probably a very big mistake,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Id., told the Huffington Post this week.  Labrador, who was once a member of a bipartisan House group seeking middle ground on immigration, said that passing even small immigration bills in the House is now “not worth doing.” 

Without those conversations – or even bills to meld together at all – Democrats would be left without their most important must-have in a bill to solve the sweeping issues of undocumented immigration. 

“We’re not going to have an immigration reform bill this year, or next year, that doesn’t deal with the 11 million,” Fitz predicted.  “People are hungering for a solution. These piecemeal measures may step in the right direction for some, but they’re clearly not going to solve the whole problem.”

In the Univision interview, Reid made clear that he's not willing to accept anything less than a solution on citizenship, either. 

"I will never agree to anything that doesn’t have a pathway to citizenship," he said. 

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