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February 13, 2014

COKIE AND STEVE ROBERTS: Americans deserve better than the cowards running Congress

John Boehner and Harry Reid deserve each other. But the American people deserve better than either one.

Both Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, and Reid, the Democratic leader of the Senate, are displaying profiles in cowardice. Both are allowing hardline elements in their own party to bully them into burying legislation that could contribute significantly to the nation’s prosperity.    In Boehner’s case, he won’t bring to the House floor an immigration reform bill that passed the Senate with a large bipartisan majority. He refuses to listen to voices like Dennis Hastert, the former Republican Speaker, who urged his party to “act soon” on the issue.

“Immigration reform will make our economy stronger and our country more secure,” Hastert wrote on Politico. The 11 million undocumented immigrants “contribute to our economy (and) removing them is neither practical nor economically smart.” Still, Boehner won’t budge.

Yes, he showed guts in defying the conservative crazies by supporting an increase in the debt ceiling. But it’s a sign of how loony things have gotten that simply paying the government’s bills requires an act of valor. He should follow the same path on immigration.

In Reid’s case, he is blocking a bill often called “fast track” that would enable President Obama to submit free trade pacts to Congress for an up or down vote, no changes allowed. Like immigration reform, it is a measure that would clearly generate economic growth.

“It’s worth millions of jobs,” says Secretary of State John Kerry.

Like Boehner, Reid won’t allow facts — or the national interest — to get in his way. As with immigration reform, fast track would probably pass if given a fair shot on the floor, but the Democratic leader is playing dictator and won’t even allow a vote.

In Washington, it’s always easier to block something than pass something, and that’s especially true when power is divided between the parties. What’s needed is leadership — a willingness to defy the ideologues on both edges. But that’s exactly what’s lacking on Capitol Hill.

Boehner has been under siege for years from his right wing for even contemplating bipartisan compromises. Last December he finally exploded, saying conservative pressure groups had “lost all credibility” for opposing a budget deal that kept the government open. Yet now he’s caving in to those same groups.

As House Republicans opened a retreat last month, the speaker offered a set of principles for negotiating an immigration deal. It was an encouraging sign, and the president let it be known that he might accept a compromise granting undocumented residents legal status short of full citizenship.

But when the right-wing propaganda machine started screaming “amnesty” and threatening to revolt, the speaker did “a whirlwind about-face,” as the Washington Post described it. He shelved immigration and tried to blame the president for the impasse.

“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” he said.

But as the Post argued, that explanation was a “smokescreen,” a “weak excuse” and an outright “lie.” The administration has vigorously enforced the immigration laws — too vigorously, in our view — deporting 2 million people and breaking up countless families.

Boehner knows what’s right for his country and his party. Just last week Sen. Rand Paul, a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, predicted that “Texas is going to be a Democratic state within 10 years if we don’t change” on immigration.

The American Farm Bureau, long a key Republican ally, calculated that growers would lose $60 billion over the next five years if immigration rules were not changed to allow more foreign-born workers to harvest their crops.

In the face of these political and economic disasters, however, the speaker remains unmoved, at least for now. And Reid stays equally stiff-necked.

In a story headlined “When Harry Mugged Barry,” The Economist detailed how misguided Reid’s opposition to fast track really is. Trade deals now being negotiated with Asia and Europe “could generate global gains of $600 billion a year, with $200 billion of that going to America.”

But Reid is bowing to his own version of the tea party: labor unions, environmental extremists and other liberal pressure groups that would sacrifice much-needed jobs and wages on the altar of ideological purity.

In his State of the Union speech, the president pushed for both immigration reform and free trade. But he didn’t push very hard. Now he has to ratchet up the pressure. Otherwise, the cowards running Congress will win the day.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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