Immigration Reform Back From the Brink

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Photo: Molly Riley/AFP/Getty Images

There was a moment last week when the prospects for immigration reform looked, if not grave, then at least extremely dicey. Marco Rubio said he wouldn’t vote for his own bill. Raul Labrador, one of four Republicans negotiating a bipartisan plan in the House, ominously withdrew from the negotiations and even more ominously declared, “What may be the story at the end of this session is that Obamacare killed immigration reform.”

But the events since then have suggested just the opposite. Republicans aren’t looking for a way to quietly fold their tent. In fact, the prospects of passage have probably never looked stronger.

Several things have happened to undergird this conclusion. In the wake of Labrador’s exit, Paul Ryan endorsed the House bill. Rubio then clarified, or revised, or in any case communicated, that he’s not trying to back away but remains as committed as ever (“I won't abandon this issue until it's done, until we get a bill passed.”). Republican senator Kelly Ayotte — a vulnerable purple-state Republican, but not one given over to bipartisanship — announced her support for the Senate bill.

Probably the most important development of the entire immigration saga is that John Boehner is finally showing his hand, at least anonymously. Seung Min Kim and Jake Sherman report for Politico, “privately, the Ohio Republican is beginning to sketch out a road map to try to pass some version of an overhaul in his chamber — a welcome sign for proponents of immigration reform.”

Boehner apparently isn’t certain whether his plan will involve passing a bipartisan bill through his chamber or passing some smaller, right-wing bill first. The key thing is the end game. Whatever the House passes, it will prompt a conference to merge the House and Senate bills. In all likelihood, there will be 218 votes to pass some kind of comprehensive reform through the House. But almost certainly, the vast majority of those 218 votes will be Democrats. So the question isn’t whether Boehner will support a comprehensive reform bill, but whether he will let one come to a vote.

One thing I learned in the course of underestimating Mitt Romney’s chances of making it through a Republican primary is that the public version of the intraparty debate does not perfectly reflect the real thing. Conservative activists vent in public, and the party establishment tends to operate behind the scenes. The Establishment seems to have decided to respond to the election by trying to take immigration policy off the table. (Ryan’s support for reform is the strongest single indicator of the party Establishment’s thinking.)

There is no doubt that conservatives will revolt against the bill. The major question is whether John Boehner really wants to kill reform, whether he wants to cast a symbolic vote against reform while letting Democrats pass it for him, or whether conservative opponents will force him to keep a bill from coming up. The back-from-the-brink signals sent out by Establishment Republicans suggest Boehner and the party’s Establishment don’t want to kill it.