Why Boehner Will Betray His Base on Immigration

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A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in a permatan. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immigration reform is not like gun control. Gun control popped suddenly onto the national agenda, and nothing about it made Republicans think they had to alter their stance. On immigration, Republicans fretted since the GOP primary that the party was alienating the growing Latino electorate in a way that fundamentally threatened the party’s national competitiveness.

There will be a fight within the Republican Party over whether to accept immigration reform, and the fight will take place inside the House of Representatives. But it’s a fight the pro-reform side is likely to win.

The portents are everywhere. Republican consultants are explaining their consensus belief that the party simply has to take immigration policy off the table in order to have any chance to reach Latino voters. “I think you're seeing a pretty concerted effort … to try to put this issue behind us” said one. Opponents are losing heart. “There are some people who lost their will to fight this fight,” one conservative talk show host conceded to the New York Times, “They think they’ve lost it already and they’ve sort of thrown in the towel, including my fellow radio hosts.” Paul Ryan is appearing with Luis Guittierrez today to discuss immigration reform, and is praising the Senate’s Gang of Eight plan. Arch-conservative Jeff Flake has endorsed reform.

The key to the whole process is John Boehner. The House Speaker’s control of the legislative process will dictate whether immigration reform lives or dies. In the short run, opponents hope to drag out the debate as long as possible, ginning up public opposition and putting the always-ugly legislative process on bright public display, as they did to the Obama agenda in 2009–2010. Robert Costa has a must-read report explaining the conservative plan to use delay to kill the bill:

Several sources close to the leadership say that even if the Senate passes something on immigration, the bill will be immediately sent to the committees, and then either sent back to the Senate with changes, or rewritten in a bicameral conference committee. This means that the chance of the Senate’s Gang of Eight bill coming to the House floor, as is, is nearly non-existent. House Republicans would first have to mull it, schedule hearings, and then tinker with its legislative language.

That tweaking process could take months

Months! That sounds fun. But here is the problem. The whole point of immigration reform for Republicans —  other than, you know, helping people, which no doubt moves them very deeply —  is to rebrand the party. A drawn-out immigration debate commanding center stage will simply create more opportunities for conservative Republicans to say offensive things about Latinos. And make no doubt: however diligently their consultants coach them not to, they will say offensive things about Latinos. So far we’ve had one Republican member call undocumented immigrants “wetbacks” and another publicly muse that some of them may be secret Al Qaeda agents.

And we've only just begun! A whole summer of this stuff could drive the Democratic share of the Latino vote into the 80s.

The main question is whether a bill that passes the Senate, which seems highly probable, can get a vote in the House. If it does, it can probably pass, with mostly Democratic votes and a handful of Republicans. Will Boehner let that bill come to a vote? Costa quotes a Republican insider, who tells him, “All of the conservatives, they think they have frozen Boehner; he’s in their pocket.” On the other hand, the pro-reform contingent thinks he will allow a bipartisan vote. Roll Call reports, “Even while they say there is no explicit commitment from Boehner, members and aides who are part of or close to the bipartisan group seem to have confidence, even cockiness, that Boehner secretly has their back.”

And so the biggest tell so far may be Boehner’s comments today. Conservatives are using the Boston terror attacks as a pretext to delay reform. Boehner rejected that argument this morning. (“Primarily, I’m in the camp of, if we fix our immigration system, it may actually help us understand who all’s here, why they’re here, and what legal status they have.”)

Boehner has to tread a careful path here, not alienating conservati8ves to the point where they depose him as Speaker. But Boehner can tell which way the wind is blowing.