12/16/2013 07:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Will Boehner Move On Immigration Reform?

There seems to be an interesting round of speculation taking place in Washington over whether Speaker John Boehner will move on immigration reform in the House next year, and (if so) when he would do so. The story, at heart, is part of the ongoing civil war between the Tea Party and the Establishment Republicans, which is why it is such a fascinating question to even contemplate.

The conventional thinking, up until now, has been that Boehner has been slow-walking immigration reform all year because he doesn't want to see it succeed. Now that he has successfully punted it into the 2014 session of Congress, it will be allowed to quietly wither and die, since "it's an election year" and everyone knows nothing of importance gets done in even-numbered years in Washington. But now a counter-story has emerged: Boehner is going to use his newfound support in the House to reach a compromise with Democrats some time next year. Perhaps he will make this move before or during the crucial primary season, or perhaps he is waiting until just after primary season ends to do so. Which one you believe, at the moment, depends on whose version of this rumor you buy into.

Here's the version which sets the date early next year, from a story on intra-Republican squabbling between Tea Party and other ultraconservative outside groups and the Establishment Republicans, led by Boehner (emphasis added):

In the recent dust-up over the budget deal, the outside groups suspect that Boehner has a hidden motive. They suggest he's anxious to put economic fights in the rear-view mirror so he can tackle contentious immigration legislation early next year, before the first round of March primaries in Texas and Illinois.

The groups' suspicions were heightened by the recent high-profile budget success of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who favors a way out of the shadows for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. in violation of the law, and in Boehner's hire of a Senate staffer who worked on bipartisan immigration legislation for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"It's very easy to see that they want to clear a lane to pass amnesty," said Daniel Horowitz, policy director for the Madison Project, who described the overall differences with Republican leaders as irreconcilable.

But there is another version of this rumor making the rounds, as well: Boehner will wait until after the primary dust has settled, and then he will move on immigration reform.

If the "before the primaries" version is correct, then John Boehner will be actively fomenting fighting in his own party's ranks, just before the primaries happen. If this is true, then Boehner will be presenting himself (and his Establishment candidates, by extension) as leading a party which can indeed get things done, and which did indeed learn a few lessons from the 2012 election. Boehner will throw the Tea Partiers under the bus as a direct challenge to their greatest political weapon -- the Tea Party primary candidates that elected Republicans have been quaking in fear over for the past few years. Boehner will champion reasonableness and compromise with Democrats in a much-needed effort to drag his party back to the center of American politics, and away from the fringe. By helping mainstream Republican candidates show that they can indeed get things done in Washington, he will blunt the edge of the radicals screaming to shut everything down as their only go-to option. This, no doubt, could help the Republican Party's chances in the general election and position them a lot better for the 2016 race.

But this construct lacks a certain degree of common sense. Republican primary voters, after all, are not exactly known for rewarding centrism and compromise -- especially not when it happens weeks before they vote. The "Boehner will move before the primaries" way of thinking ignores this disconnect entirely. Which is why the "Boehner will move after the primaries" story makes a lot more political sense, at least to me.

If Boehner were to move on immigration after the bulk of the primary season is over, he'd only have a short window to do so. Conventional wisdom is right (to a point) about "big things don't happen in election years," after all. It's pretty hard to see Boehner scheduling a vote on sweeping immigration reform after, say, Congress' August break. Which means Boehner would have to move on a very tight schedule, from the end of the primaries through the end of July (at the latest).

Boehner has already ruled out the simple expedient of just bringing up the wildly bipartisan Senate immigration bill for a vote in his own chamber. The House, he has sworn, will come up with their own version of the bill. Or "bills" -- as House Republicans seem to think having a bunch of smaller bills is somehow superior to one large bill (for their own arcane reasons). None of these bills has yet made it out of committee, though. Which means they'd have to start moving them pretty quickly next year, one by one. This could push the entire effort back, right smack into the primary season, if Boehner isn't careful.

But assuming he can thread this legislative needle, Boehner would be a lot more politically savvy by hitting the window between the primaries and the summer break. This way, the threat of "being primaried" would be at its lowest possible ebb for his fellow Republicans. It would be almost two full years before that would even be possible, if the 2014 primary season has just closed. This might allow more Republicans to consider voting for such a proposal -- knowing they'd be safe from the primary threat for another two years (and knowing how short voters' memories are). Politically, this makes a lot more sense than holding such a vote right before the primary elections.

Now, I have no idea which route John Boehner will take: bury immigration reform completely next year, vote on it early, or vote on it after the primaries. If I were John Boehner, I would be attempting to repair my party's image with Latino voters (to lay some groundwork for the 2016 election) by rebranding Republicans as in favor of sensible immigration reform. I would lay low during the primaries, and then hold votes immediately afterwards. This would lessen the political damage that could be done to any individual Republican member, for the maximum amount of time. But then, obviously, I am not John Boehner. So who knows which way he'll jump?

We are still in the realm of rumor and speculation when it comes to what the House will do (or not do) on immigration reform next year. The conventional wisdom of "nothing will get done" appears to be the safest bet at this point. But maybe the rumors are correct, and maybe John Boehner is going to show some serious leadership on the issue next year. Maybe the new spirit of comity which emerged from the budget negotiations is a harbinger of good things to come. If the Republican Party could manage to hit "reset" on their immigration stance, it certainly would change the dynamics of the next few elections in a major way. The risks of Boehner making the attempt are pretty obvious within his own ranks (see: earlier quote, casually using the word "amnesty"). But the possible rebranding benefit for the Republican Party if Boehner succeeds could be a pivotal point in electoral politics. So it will definitely be interesting to watch, as events unfold.


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