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Farm Bill Failure Shows John Boehner's Tight Spot On Immigration

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WASHINGTON -- The failure of House Republican leadership to pass a farm bill through their chamber on Thursday should cause serious concern for advocates of an overhaul of the nation's immigration system.

The farm bill's failure -- which came as a surprise to congressional observers -- confirmed that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has relatively little control over his caucus and no good procedural options to move substantive legislation. Relying on members of his own party to pass items like immigration reform could end up with results similar to the failed farm bill. Relying on Democrats to pass a bill, however, could mean losing his speakership.

So far, Boehner has promised not to push immigration reform without the support of House Republicans -- citing deference to the so-called Hastert rule, which says a majority of the majority party must support a measure for it to be brought to the floor. But the Ohio Republican is also under heavy pressure from his party's leadership to pass something of significance, or risk setting the GOP back another generation with Hispanic voters.

"You can clearly see the same dynamic at play on immigration if we are constrained by the Hastert rule in that Boehner will be balancing often times diametrically opposed points of view and using the inexact science of whip counting to find the sweet spot that gives you at least 50.1 percent of the [Republicans] and simultaneously breaks 218 to pass," a Democratic aide wrote of the farm bill failure in an email, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. "No wonder he smokes."

Reform supporters were encouraged when Boehner said last week that he would support the farm bill even though it faced some opposition from within his conference. Leadership had aimed to win over enough Democrats that the farm bill would pass even without support from all Republicans. But the strategy backfired, when more than 60 Republicans defected and not enough Democrats joined the ayes. The bill ultimately went down in a 195 to 234 vote.

Republicans cried foul, saying Democrats had promised more votes and didn't deliver. Democrats gleefully insisted Boehner wasn't in control of his own members. Either way, the failure showed that despite bipartisan work on issues like immigration seeming closer to success in the Senate, the House is still intensely gridlocked. A bill like the immigration reform measure will be a strong test of how Boehner deals with the pressure of significant legislation while also contending with a conference that's skeptical of reform.

If the speaker decides to bring up an immigration bill when conservatives oppose it, he could face another failure -- or a revolt. But whether he decides to break his promise on the Hastert rule could be the difference between immigration reform passing into law or going down in flames.

The fact that Democrats bailed on Boehner Thursday, a GOP aide warned, could mean that the speaker won't trust them again when it comes time to consider immigration reform.

"I’d think that Democrats’ decision to sandbag us on the farm bill today makes it obvious how impractical it would be to rely on them for votes on immigration," the aide wrote in an email, declining to be named in order to discuss internal negotiations. "Should drive a final stake in the heart of that fantasy."

Boehner said Tuesday that he would not break the Hastert rule on immigration, clarifying later that his promise extended to a potential compromise between the House and Senate bills.

"[A]ny immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties’ support if we’re really serious about making that happen," Boehner told reporters after a meeting with House Republicans. "And so I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have a majority support of Republicans."

If he did bring a proposal to the floor without the backing, he could face significant ire from within his conference. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said Boehner should lose his speakership if he breaks his promises on immigration.

"I would consider that a betrayal of the Republican members of the House and a betrayal of the Republicans throughout the country,” Rohrabacher said Monday on World Net Daily radio. "If Boehner moves forward ... and permits this to come to a vote even though the majority of Republicans in the House -- and that's if they do -- oppose what’s coming to a vote, he should be removed as speaker."

Boehner said Thursday he doesn't expect such a revolt to happen. "I fully expect to be speaker," Boehner told CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo Thursday on "Closing Bell."

If he does decide to abide by the Hastert rule, Boehner will likely end up having to push a House Republican version of immigration reform, to avert criticism that his chamber would rather not legislate on the topic at all.

The House GOP is moving forward on two such immigration bills: an enforcement-only bill called the SAFE Act, designed to crack down on unauthorized immigrants, and another that would reform the agricultural worker visa system. A bipartisan group is working on a comprehensive plan, but faced a setback earlier this month when Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) left the group over differences on how to deal with health care for undocumented immigrants.

Democrats favor a comprehensive approach, and if a piecemeal measure goes for a vote -- particularly one as controversial as the SAFE Act -- they might not agree to support it. Republicans, fearing a bill would pass and later be combined with a comprehensive measure from the Senate, could back out as well.

But not all news was bad news on Thursday when it came to immigration reform's prospects in the House. Another Democratic aide who was not authorized to speak on legislative efforts insisted the farm bill didn't mean anything for immigration reform's prospects. "Apples and oranges," the aide said simply.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who is on both the House Judiciary Committee that handles immigration and the Agriculture Committee, told reporters after the vote that he didn't think the two issues are comparable.

"I've been right in the middle of both of these issues and over the last 48 hours I've done nothing but farm bill and immigration," King said after the vote. "But I didn't equate the two in leadership in that. I just didn't. I think they worked to whip this bill, and I watched as the leadership team had their finger on the pulse of a lot of the votes. In the end, I think it just blew up."

Sabrina Siddiqui contributed reporting.

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