Immigration, Round 2: Still a Reach

The next immigration-reform push: all that matters is whether Boehner is willing to buck the base.

The Times is all excited this morning that John Boehner has hired a staffer who used to be John McCain's top immigration aide. This means, the paper reports, that Boehner is serious about immigration reform and fully prepared to tell the tea party to go stuff it.

Boehner would not try to ram through the Senate bill passed last year, which is still alive this year, i.e., for the remainder of the session of Congress during which it was passed. Rather, says the Times, he'd break it into smaller pieces and see if he could get those through: most notably, a possible path to citizenship for young people who came to the country illegally as children with their parents. Obviously, this is well short of the broader Senate bill provisions, which include a path to citizenship for everyone.

I still think even these provisions will be too much for the House GOP, but the X factor here, which the Times doesn't get into, is whether this is Boehner's last year as speaker. He's not going to say of course, because as soon as he says it, he loses whatever tenuous power over his people he has.

But if he has decided in his mind that he's not going to run for speaker again, then he may well allow something to pass the House with lots of Democratic votes and just a handful of Republican ones. Under that circumstance, immigration reforms could pass the House, and maybe even some fairly progressive ones, if Boehner ends up being in a position where he needs the Latino caucus more than the tea party caucus.

But more broadly, this is going to be a year, is it not, of continual struggle between the conservatives and the radicals, culminating in the handful of primary elections in which radical challengers are running against conservative incumbents. So I don't see much reason to think that any immigration reform will be anything other than ferociously controversial within the GOP. The only question now is whether Boehner has the onions to sidestep the radicals.

Yes, he said last year that they'd "lost all credibility," a phrase on which many are placing a great deal of optimism. But we've heard that Beltway optimism before. I'm still skeptical that he'd want an immigration bill to pass with the backing of only a minority of his caucus, because it would infuriate and energize the rabid wing of the base in advance of the by-elections. So maybe the answer is a lame-duck session--he passes immigration with 180 Democratic votes and 40 Republican ones and then says "Thanks, I'm retiring." I suppose there'd be more disgraceful ways for him to go.