Barring a surprise, the bipartisan immigration bill on the floor of the Senate will be approved by the end of the week. Two-thirds of the chamber, including 15 Republicans, voted to break a filibuster in a key procedural vote Monday night, clearing a path for a similar number to support final passage before members scatter for the July 4 recess. Perhaps the bill’s architects will win the splashy 70-vote majority they have sought. Perhaps they fall a few votes shy of that target. Either way, success in the Senate is a significant milestone in the push to overhaul U.S. immigration laws for the first time since 1986.
It may also be its apogee. Because when the immigration debate resumes after the holiday, the action shifts to the House of Representatives, Washington’s legislative killing field. As things stand now, it will take a change of heart from rank-and-file Republicans or a hairpin turn from their embattled leader John Boehner to thread legislation through the House.
(MORE: Boehner in a Bind on Immigration)
Here is the grim reality for the bill’s supporters: the past three years have proven that a big portion of the House Republican conference are willing to defy both popular opinion and political pressure in service of ideology and self-preservation. To this group, which numbers perhaps 100 members or more, the Senate bill is unacceptable. It is too big and too expensive. It rewards law-breakers with health-care benefits, and kicks off the citizenship process before the border is secure. Instead of stemming the tide of illegal immigration, the party’s opinion-makers warn, it will open the floodgates for millions of new “undocumented Democrats,” as Rush Limbaugh puts it.
The House Republican conference both dislikes and distrusts the Senate, which is why the suggestion that a formidable margin in the upper chamber will impact the House strikes many conservatives as laughable. “Ooh, I’m scared,” scoffed House Republican Raul Labrador of Idaho, an influential Tea Partyer and former immigration lawyer. The Democratic-controlled Senate is so toxic in conservative circles that those who deign to cut deals there are regarded as heretics. Witness the excommunication of Marco Rubio, who until recently was ordained as one of the high priests and potential saviors of conservatism. Now he’s getting booed at Tea Party rallies and panned as Chuck Schumer’s dupe by the very people who touted him as presidential timber.
Proponents of immigration reform, as well as some political handicappers, argue that the clout of the GOP’s anti-immigration wing has waned in the wake of Mitt Romney‘s drubbing last November. Comprehensive reform could boost the party’s paltry standing with Latinos, GOP Beltway grandees argue. While the House bristles at taking direction from the Democratic Senate, they argue, it might listen to business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce, anti-tax icons like Grover Norquist, evangelical churches, and a high-tech community it sees as an emerging donor base. Immigration reform has a powerful advocate within the House in former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, plus a cadre of conservatives who support the concept if not the Senate bill. Few people dispute the U.S. immigration system is broken, and an overwhelming majority support efforts to fix it.
These are logical arguments, but logic has had little or no effect on many House Republicans in the recent past. They have a strong record of bucking pressure and making unpopular choices on issues ranging from the debt ceiling to disaster relief. The conference will meet on July 10 to map out a battle plan on immigration. The House has three paths at its disposal. One is to try to move its own comprehensive measure. The odds of that appear long, since the working group tasked with assembling a bipartisan plan has so far come up empty. Many conservatives prefer a piecemeal approach, passing one or more bills that beef up border security and enforcement standards without the citizenship path Democrats seek. There is also a faction in the House that doesn’t want to pass anything at all, because of fears that sending immigration measures to a conference with the Senate could backfire.
And if the obstacles on the right are many, hurdles await on the left as well. Republicans on the Hill — and even some liberals — suspect that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi could opt to keep immigration as a cudgel for the 2014 midterms rather than rally her members behind a diluted measure. Adherents of this theory can point to the recent failed vote on what had been a bipartisan farm bill, when Pelosi quietly yanked Democratic support after the late addition of a controversial amendment, then denounced the GOP leadership as “amateur hour.”
All these factors must be swirling through Boehner’s mind as he wrestles with how to approach immigration. Sometime in the coming months, the House Speaker may face a choice between the preference of his members and the future of his party. Boehner says he will observe the will of the House. Unless he changes his mind, the bill looks destined to die.