Is John Boehner Bluffing on Immigration Reform?

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 10:54 AM PDT

"I can't seem to persuade @ed_kilgore or @kdrum that Boehner may let immig reform pass w/mostly Ds," Greg Sargent tweets today. That's....sort of true. Here's Greg's latest in a series of blog posts making his case. It's a reponse to John Boehner's latest ironclad promise that he will never, ever, let immigration reform come to the House floor unless a majority of Republicans are convinced that it properly addresses border security:

There’s some interesting sleight of hand here. Note that Boehner seems more focused on enforcement and border security than on citizenship. The Speaker is claiming that if a majority of House Republicans thinks the emerging proposal isn’t tough enough on border security, then the House won’t vote on it. But the real Rubicon House Republicans must cross is the path to citizenship. What happens if a majority of House Republicans can’t support the path to citizenship, no matter how tough the border security elements are made? In that scenario, if Boehner holds to his vow, the House wouldn’t vote on anything that includes citizenship, right?....But the pressure on him to allow a vote will be very intense, from powerful GOP stakeholders such as the business community and wide swaths of the consulting/strategist establishment.

....I’m with Jonathan Bernstein: This all turns on whether enough Republicans privately want comprehensive reform to pass for the good of the party, even if they are not prepared to vote for it. If so, Boehner will let it go to the floor. Even if it must pass with mostly Dems. Don’t buy all the tough talk. Boehner himself doesn’t know how this is going to end.

This all relies on having a correct read of the internal machinations of the Republican caucus, and I won't even pretend to have any real insight into that. But just for scorekeeping purposes, here's the Cliff Notes version of Greg's argument:

  • The Republican establishment wants immigration reform to pass. The business community wants it because they'd rather have cheap legal labor than cheap illegal labor, and the smarter GOP eminences want it because they think—possibly correctly—that they can't win the presidency in 2016 if Hispanics keep voting overwhelmingly against them. And they really want to win back the presidency in 2016.
  • But the base of the party is dead set against immigration reform. They'll only accept it if (a) the border and citizenship requirements are tough, and (b) they believe that Republicans have fought hard to wring every last concession out of Democrats. They'll bolt at the first sign that they're being sold out.
  • Given that, Boehner (and Marco Rubio) have to sound relentlessly tough just to give the bill a chance.
  • But even if all this happens, lots of Republicans still won't be willing to risk the wrath of the tea-party base by voting in favor. Instead, they'd rather denounce the bill in public, while privately telling Boehner to bring it to the floor and get the damn thing over with. Let Democrats pass it with the help of just enough Republicans in safe seats that it seems plausibly bipartisan, thus salvaging the Hispanic vote. 

For this to work, of course, everyone has to sound genuinely outraged by the bill all the way to the bitter end. Their private acquiescences have to remain completely buried.

So do I buy this? I'm just not sure. It certainly sounds logical, but let's face it: logic is not a strong suit of the contemporary House Republican caucus. And I wonder just how many House leaders are truly convinced that the party is doomed without the Hispanic vote anyway? I have a sense that a lot of them are in the process of convincing themselves that this is just a bunch of elite Beltway hooey. Plus, I'm always sort of generally skeptical of these kinds of 11-dimensional chess arguments. Most politicians just aren't that devious.

But I guess we'll find out soon enough.

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