Senators Agree to Complete the Dang Fence

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Photo: Scott Olson/2010 Getty Images

Supporters of the immigration bill are announcing an agreement today to strengthen border enforcement, doubling the border patrol and requiring 700 miles of border fence. ("The Border Surge," they call it.)

The compromise itself isn't likely to alienate any Democratic supporters. The red line for immigration-reform supporters has always been a path to citizenship for undocumented residents. Liberals can live with stronger border enforcement. What they can't live with is "triggers" that would prevent the path to citizenship — say, requirements for total or near-total control of the border — that, if not met, would automatically freeze the process.

The trouble is that stronger border enforcement was always the thing liberals were prepared to give on, and now they're giving it up early in the process, because the current version of the bill isn't attracting enough Senate Republican support. And almost inevitably, the House will push whatever the Senate passes further right — which means the compromise that might have been dangled to make the bill palatable in the House has already been used to get it through the Senate.

And in the House, it all comes down to whether John Boehner feels comfortable passing a bill with mostly Democratic votes. Here Boehner is engaging in his usual mystifying gyrations. He has told conservatives he won't pass a bill without a majority of Republicans supporting it, or at least left Republicans with this impression, which would likely doom any comprehensive reform bill. On the other hand, he has left Democrats with a very different impression:

Boehner won raves and caucus members emerged predicting the bill would win a majority of both parties and become law by the end of the year.

"The meeting was wonderful," exclaimed Democratic Rep. Luis Guiterrez of Illinois.

"We are ready," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. "The speaker made it very clear that he'd like the House to be ready as well."

"It was a meeting that gives us a lot of hope," said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, the Hispanic Caucus chairman.

Republican Dana Roherbacher has threatened to challenge Boehner's speakership if he passes a bill with mostly Democratic votes — a threat that has loomed since the outset of Boehner's speakership itself. To be sure, Boehner could satisfy everybody by passing a bill through the House that is both comprehensive immigration reform and attracts the votes of most Republicans. But the odds of that seem negligible. So it remains to be seen whether Boehner has a real strategy here, or is just hoping to wake up another day without losing his job.