Boehner in a Bind on Immigration

Passing immigration reform could bolster his party's dismal relationship with Hispanics, yet much of his caucus appears bent on killing the bill, then proudly flashing the murder weapon.

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) leaves after his weekly news conference June 6, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

It’s a cliche to say that John Boehner has the toughest job in Washington, but like many cliches, it has a kernel of truth. Consigned to running a caucus that has little interest in governing (and even less in being governed), Boehner’s House has lurched from one crisis to the next. The immigration bill expected to reach House desks next month may be Boehner’s trickiest challenge yet.

Boehner’s bind is this: passing immigration reform could bolster his party’s dismal relationship with Hispanics. Yet much of his caucus appears bent on killing the bill, then proudly flashing the murder weapon. And the Speaker, never much in command of his own troops, finds his own job — and the fortunes of his party — hanging in the balance. “The fate of the Republican Party,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, “may rest in Boehner’s hands.”

If Boehner calculates, as many savvy Republicans have, that passing immigration is in the GOP‘s interest, he could thread legislation through with mostly Democratic support, plus a rump faction of Republicans. (He has done this on other occasions, including the fiscal cliff deal on New Year’s Day and a Hurricane Sandy relief measure, to the chagrin of some colleagues.) But immigration is a charged issue, and Boehner could face an insurrection on his right if he brings a bill to the floor without support from a majority of Republicans, which would violate the so-called Hastert Rule. One House Republican warned the move could cost Boehner his speakership. Asked about the threat Tuesday, Boehner acknowledged it might.

So far the Speaker has been coy about his intentions. On Tuesday he seemed to assure his colleagues that he would not pass a bill without them, but left himself plenty of outs. “Any immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties’ support,” he said. “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.” Ought to; not will. And just because he doesn’t “see any way” now doesn’t mean one won’t emerge.

Public support for reform is substantial, and Boehner may decide it outweighs the desire to appease his conference. One Democratic and one Republican polling company recently conducted a joint survey of attitudes toward immigration reform in 29 states. In each, at least 60% of respondents backed reform. The issue cuts across party lines, with conservatives in ruby-red bastions like North Dakota and Texas favoring an overhaul of a system that is universally regarded as broken.

The GOP’s consultant class believes a bill would help the party: witness the latest ad released Wednesday from Crossroads GPS. But they don’t vote. And the lawmakers who do have different motivations. Many are guided not by the fate of their party, but the preservation of their careers. In the Senate, the Republicans advocating reform hail from states with growing Hispanic populations (Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona) or swing states (like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Marco Rubio of Florida). Others want the achievement on their resume (Rubio again).

Many House Republicans, on the other hand, represent gerrymandered or otherwise arch-conservative districts where the quickest route out of a job is to back a bill tagged with the dreaded “amnesty” label. As National Review reports, conservatives on the House Judiciary Committee — which has begun the process of moving enforcement-only legislation — are vowing to block any immigration measures, no matter how worthy or how conservative.

Boehner has pledged to poll his caucus when it meets July 10, by which time the Senate is likely to have passed the Gang of Eight’s bill. Soon after, he may be faced with a decision between what’s good for his party and what’s good for his job.