Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Crunch time for immigration, budget fights

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Mon August 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: With Congress in recess, action shifts to the district level
  • He says pressure will be on Republicans to oppose immigration reform, spurn budget compromise
  • Zelizer says Obama administration achievements may hinge on what Congress hears on its recess

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- August is going to be a crucial month for President Barack Obama.

As the 113th Congress takes its recess, legislators will be returning to their states and districts to hear from constituents.

The stakes are particularly high for Obama and Democrats, who have one last chance to sway the House Republicans before two hugely important issues are resolved: the immigration bill and the budget.

As politicians in both parties begin to prepare for the 2014 midterms and think about the 2016 elections, this fall might be the last real opportunity for the president to win congressional support for these big measures.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Obama has made some progress in the Senate, where a small group of centrists in both parties has been mobilizing support behind compromise. The biggest challenge comes in the House of Representatives, where Republicans from solidly conservative districts have shown almost no interest in compromising on these issues.

Opinion: How to win over GOP on immigration

The congressional "recess," like others that occur during the year, creates a huge window for citizens to make an impact on what legislators are thinking, as well as on what they will fear doing. As the columnist Ezra Klein recently wrote in The Washington Post, congressional "recess" is a misleading term since, "No one plays kickball. There aren't any juice boxes. ... They're still working."

While many politicians and pundits decry the fact that the recess period keeps getting longer, they serve an important role. The difference from the rest of the work year, Klein explains, is that legislators, who tend to work about 60-hour weeks during these off periods, focus primarily on constituent issues rather than on policymaking and fundraising.

Congress heads for recess

These kinds of activities include town halls, individual meetings and other civic events where citizens have a chance to make their voices heard directly.

It is true that Washington-based groups play a much bigger role these days in determining who comes out in these events, through what is called "Astroturf" lobbying, but still local citizens will be the main presence in these events.

Conservative voters will just be playing prevent defense this month. They will be coming out to these meetings to predictably voice their opposition to any immigration deal that includes a path to citizenship, and they will tell Republicans to stand firm on the budget and insist on the continuation of the cuts in domestic spending that were instituted by sequestration.

The administration has to counteract this pressure, or Republicans will return in September without any reason to say yes. Obama does have some allies in this battle, particularly on immigration. Business organizations that favor liberalized immigration policies are working hard to mobilize support in Republican districts so that voters can show that not everyone who lives in the red part of the map is against the bill.

They have support from prominent conservatives such as Karl Rove, who remains a major fundraiser for the party. Religious organizations are also joining the cause, as are immigration rights advocates who will make their voices known.

Freshman congressman frustrated by extremists

The Alliance for Citizenship, a coalition supporting the immigration bill that passed the Senate, plans to flood 52 districts and 360 events with their supporters. Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro of the group La Raza said, "There is one thing we must make absolutely clear and that is that the forces and the voices pressing for immigration reform are vast and growing ..."

With the budget, the administration's supporters face a more difficult challenge.

Yet even here, there are many Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, who have no appetite for a government shutdown in September over the budget, and they have strong incentives to encourage voters to come out to these meetings and call for a more reasonable approach to this ongoing standoff.

The Concord Coalition, an organization devoted to deficit reduction, has urged supporters to appear in districts to push for bipartisan compromise on a budget deal.

The odds are obviously not good that the administration can outflank the right. Nonetheless, we have seen how citizens can reshape the national debate.

In August 2009, tea party activists came out to town hall meetings to make their voices known on the health care bill. Their efforts captured national media attention and played a huge role in pushing their party to the right. While they lost on the final vote in Congress, the momentum from the town hall meetings that August created the political foundation for the Republican takeover of Congress in November. They have also driven the GOP toward a staunch stance on the budget.

There have been many other examples where citizens and activists used legislators' time in districts to convey a message.

Members of both sides of the Medicare and civil rights debates used these tactics in early 1960s to build pressure on members of Congress to pass or defeat the bills that mattered to them.

This month, Democrats, as well as those Republicans who believe that their party is headed in a destructive direction, might have their last big chance to sway the debate over these two issues, but they will have to do so by winning at the grassroots level and not in the Washington echo chamber where the conventional wisdom too often shapes political thinking.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelize

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT