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Of Primary Concern: Immigration Reform Could Get New Life In 2014

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PRIMARY IMMIGRATION REFORM
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) says he won't hold a vote on immigration reform unless a majority of his conference supports it. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call) | Getty

WASHINGTON -- The consensus across the political spectrum is that GOP leaders would prefer to see comprehensive immigration reform passed, but rank-and-file House Republicans are reluctant to back any proposal that grants a pathway to citizenship, because doing so is the quickest route to a primary challenge from the right. That dynamic, it's said, will mean a long, slow death for reform.

But the pessimism around immigration reform misses a key difference between 2013 and 2014. The general election won't be until November 2014, but primaries are held in the spring and summer. The deadlines to get on the ballots for those primaries often come months earlier, meaning that at some point in 2014, the chance of a surprise challenge from the right goes to zero for all House members.

Far from being the death of immigration reform, some think the election year could breathe new life into the effort. The House will undoubtedly recess for August without passing an immigration bill; House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told his conference last week they would focus on Obamacare, the IRS and gimmicky votes on government conference spending and public salaries.

The recess could very well jack up pressure on opponents of reform, as the most die-hard tea party activists make their voices heard at town halls -- a forum ripe for verbal challenges to incumbent members of Congress. That pressure to move even more right on immigration could further entrench tea party-backed congressmen, but it could also fuel the efforts of reform supporters. The potential less-than-politically-correct rants -- some from members of Congress themselves -- inevitably will make their way to YouTube, providing fodder for pro-reform activists who will use the clips to draw attention to their cause.

The fury already emanating from the Latino establishment and community in general over inaction on immigration reform will only heighten as the 2014 elections draw closer. Last week, Univision's Jorge Ramos, known as the "Walter Cronkite of Spanish-language media," lashed out at Boehner, comparing him to Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It was perhaps the harshest insult that can be thrown around on that network, which for the last two weeks has been the most-watched channel in any language in the U.S. in the key 18-49 age demographic.

There will be scant opportunity for immigration reform in the fall, as a looming government shutdown, the approach of the debt ceiling and the festering sequester will combine to force themselves onto the agenda. In Congress, the fall quickly turns to Thanksgiving recess, which gives way even quicker to the Christmas break. And then it's 2014.

Sometime in the fall or early winter, the Republican-majority House is likely to pass some sort of legislation that toughens border security but includes no pathway to citizenship. Some conservative members are worried about passing any bill -- even if they support it -- because of the possibility it could go to conference committee and be combined with a Senate bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens. But that concern doesn't seem to be the majority view, and House leadership expects to pass something to deal with immigration, even if not comprehensive reform.

If conference committee negotiators take several months to merge the small House bill with the comprehensive Senate bill, the House wouldn't be asked to vote on it again until next spring or summer -- by which point it will be too late for challengers to launch primary campaigns.

The bipartisan group Third Way, which supports reform and believes 2014 could be the year, has mapped out the filing deadlines for Republicans who are being targeted by advocates as potential supporters of a comprehensive bill. If House members vote on immigration reform after Dec. 9, there will be 10 Texas Republicans whom advocates believe to be persuadable who could be off the hook for a primary. California, where reform supporters hope to pick up 11 GOP members, has a primary filing date of March 7. In sum, there are 38 targeted Republicans -- including Boehner -- who will know by mid-March whether they have a primary challenger.

Only about half of those safe, gettable Republicans need to vote aye to get a simple majority in the House, assuming roughly 200 Democrats vote for passage.

The scenario laid out above is far from the most likely, according to many working on reform efforts. One advocate called the entire line of thinking "bananas," and most proponents, from Obama to lawmakers, have said reform must be done in 2013 or may not happen at all. Republican leadership aides have downplayed the possibility of passing comprehensive reform, though it's impossible to say whether they truly believe immigration reform is dead or are just talking it down to give Boehner more elbow room.

But Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, politics director for Third Way, said supporters of immigration shouldn't necessarily lose hope if there is a drawn-out process.

"There is a significant chunk of House Republicans that want to see something done on this, and the only thing that's holding them back is the fear of a primary challenger," she said. "So the closer we get to these dates and the less likely that primary challenger is to pop up unannounced, the easier it is for them to have their shackles off and do what they really think they should do for the party and for themselves."

Tamar Jacoby, working on behalf of reform for the pro-business group Immigration Works USA, said that the hypothetical timeline "[c]ould turn out to be right, or could be even later -- after another big Latino turnout in November 2014."

"But I'm not giving up on this year yet -- we have no idea yet where most members stand on the issues. I think the conventional wisdom is too pessimistic," she said.

If the House prefers to sidestep the immigration issue as the election approaches, they could come back and pass a bill during the lame duck session -- a period that has seen it's fair share of major legislation move through, including, as the recent movie "Lincoln" portrayed, abolition of slavery. Republicans who voted for "amnesty" in 2014 or in a lame duck wouldn't have to worry about a primary challenge until 2016. By that time, the radioactivity of the issue may have lessened. In 2007, Fox News drove conservative anger at reform efforts. This time around, many influential conservatives support reform, including media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox.

So tweeted Rupert Murdoch on Sunday night:

If the immigration issue has a shorter radioactive half-life than people expect, it might be old news by 2016 in some districts, as people look around and realize the sky didn't fall.

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