Boston Bombings Slow Capitol Hill Efforts on Immigration, Gun Control

The Boston Marathon explosions have stolen momentum from the drive for new laws on immigration and gun control, which were set to take center stage this week. Patricia Murphy assesses the fallout.

04.17.13 8:45 AM ET

Republican Pat Toomey originally went to the Senate floor on Monday to talk up the compromise on background checks for gun buyers that he had struck with Democrat Joe Manchin.

But Toomey had to begin his remarks instead with the breaking news out of Boston.

“It appears that tragedy has struck at the Boston Marathon and bombs have gone off,” the Pennsylvania senator said. He asked for prayers for the victims before moving on to make the case for his amendment to the pending gun control legislation.

While the speech posed a brief challenge for Toomey, it illustrated the larger problem for proponents of both gun control and immigration reform—two high-wire issues that were set to take center stage in Washington this week but now must take a backseat to the country’s need to grieve over the Boston bombings.

It is an eerily familiar moment for immigration advocates, who remember all too well the commitment President Bush made to immigration reform in the first week of September 2001, only to see the issue eclipsed by the September 11 terrorist attacks and replaced by an aggressive focus on homeland security by some—and anti-immigrant rhetoric by others.

“We all had moments of ‘oh my God, is it happening again?’” a high-profile advocate for immigration reform says of the moment he learned of the Boston attacks.

Advocates have reason to wonder. In the wake of the bombings, the Gang of Eight drafting immigration language in the Senate postponed a press conference scheduled for Tuesday to unveil their legislation. And Rep. Steve King (R-IA) suggested to National Review that Congress slow down on immigration reform, citing a story that a Saudi national had been questioned about the bombings by Boston police. He has now been cleared from any suspicion.

“Some of the speculation that has come out is that, yes, it was a foreign national and, speculating here, that it was potentially a person on a student visa,” King said. “If that’s the case, then we need to take a look at the big picture.”

Jim Manley, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide now working with immigration-reform advocates, says he is watching for possible delays or changes to the legislation “very closely.”

“With 9/11, there were all sorts of attempts to racially profile different immigrant groups,” Manley says. “The question now is whether opponents of immigration legislation are going to use what happened in Boston to demand more punitive border-enforcement measures than are included in the bill. If Republicans go too far with it, they risk alienating a constituency they are trying to court.”

But other than King, no Republican would openly link the bombings to the ongoing debates over immigration or guns. With the politics of immigration so potentially dangerous, one senior Republican aide told me he would only discuss immigration later in the week, but he did not want his boss to be linked to King’s remarks Tuesday. “We don’t want to play ball on this today,” he said.

Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who has emerged as the most prominent Republican leader on immigration reform, went so far as to reject King’s remarks outright.

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“We should really be very cautious about using language that links these two things in any way,” Rubio told reporters Tuesday. “We know very little about Boston other than that it was obviously an act of terror. We don’t know who carried it out or why they carried it out, and I would caution everyone to be very careful about linking the two.”

Despite the public delay, officials on both sides of Capitol Hill told The Daily Beast they do not expect either the challenges facing gun control legislation or the momentum behind immigration reform to be significantly affected by Monday’s tragedy.

On guns, the politics of finding 60 votes to advance it in the Senate have not gotten easier. On immigration, the political imperatives remain, particularly for Republicans eager to broaden their meager support among Latino voters.

“We’re there. This is happening,” a senior Democratic aide said of the week’s pending votes on gun control and a Senate Judiciary hearing on immigration reform planned for Friday. “Any delay at this point will be because of logistics or politics. It won’t be because of Boston.”