06/30/2013 03:08 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2013

How to Force Immigration Reform Through the House

Just over a century ago as part of a revolt against the tyrannical Speaker of the House of Representatives "Uncle" Jo Cannon (R-IL) the first "discharge petition" procedures were adopted. This measure that weakened the power of the speaker might, ironically, now bolster the flagging authority of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). How so?

The Senate has passed a sweeping immigration reform bill in a bipartisan 68-32 vote. The bill greatly enhances border security, modernizes the visa system and provides a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.

Every news outlet reporting this historic achievement immediately comments that the fate of the bill in the House of Representatives is "uncertain" or worse. Speaker Boehner has said that the House will not consider the Senate bill but will use "normal procedures" to pass its own legislation, legislation that will primarily address border security -- Mexican border security to be precise. And it definitely will not contain a path to residency or citizenship aka "amnesty."

Speaker Boehner has reinforced this hard line stance by announcing his intent to invoke the "Hastert Rule" by which a majority of the majority party must support a bill before it is brought up for a vote. While he has violated this rule on a few occasions, the vehemence with which his far right (aka Tea Party) opposes the bill might well threaten his speakership if he reneges on this pledge. It would probably require forty or more GOP House members now opposed to the Senate bill to attain a "majority of a majority" for it in the House.

To change these calculations, Democrats appear to be relying on the results of the 2012 election where Hispanics and other minorities cast overwhelming percentages of their votes for Democrats. Certainly that is the view of the national Republican Party, many GOP Senators and a large swath of major GOP donors. They see the need to appeal to Hispanics and other minorities as essential to regaining the White House and the Senate. But that is not the concern of a large number of House members of the far right or Tea Party persuasion. They are first of all concerned not to face a primary challenge from the right due to an ideologically incorrect vote. And they are more concerned with ideology than governing. Given the highly gerrymandered GOP congressional districts, this narrow view is very rational for majority of GOP House members.

So, is immigration reform dead? No. This is where the "discharge petition" comes into play. This procedure has been modified over time and now requires and absolute majority of House members (218) to sign a petition with their names made public to force a bill to the House floor for a vote. Thus, if the Senate bill were introduced in the House and all 200 Democratic members signed the petition, only 18 GOP signatures would be needed, far short of the number needed for a "majority of the majority." And rather than trying to persuade members in safe districts, the focus would be on members in more competitive districts.

Such a move would place GOP members in not-so-safe districts in a position where they might have to defy the House leadership -- something the Tea Party has done with impunity on Boehner's economic "Plan B" and the Farm bill where 68 GOP defections led to its defeat. Certainly such a move would be subject to parliamentary procedures and intrigues, but it would put the supporters of immigration on the offensive and let Speaker Boehner off the hook. He can oppose the discharge petition and threaten defectors. And if he loses, he can use the embarrassment of swallowing the Senate bill as an object lesson for the Tea Party types in the cost of obstructionism. Speaker Cannon would enjoy this twist of fate.