Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Crunch time for immigration, budget fights

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
August 5, 2013 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
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
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT