Boehner’s Paradox: A GOP Trap on Immigration Reform
Policy + Politics

Boehner’s Paradox: A GOP Trap on Immigration Reform

REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Now that the Senate appears on track to pass the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration reform package later this week, all eyes are shifting to the bill’s prospects in the political no man’s land known as the House of Representatives.

On Sunday, several senators optimistically predicted the legislation designed to toughen security at the borders and put 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship would attract votes from as many as 70 Democrats and Republicans. That would be enough, some say, to force House Speaker John Boehner and other House Republicans to temper their antipathy toward the measure.

​“This has the potential of becoming the next major civil rights movement,” Sen. Charles Schumer, the leading Democratic sponsor of the Senate immigration bill, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”  “I could envision in the late summer or early fall if Boehner tries to bottle the bill up or put something in without a path to citizenship…   I could see a million people on the mall in Washington.”

Schumer predicted that business leaders, evangelical leaders and CEOs of high-tech companies would join the public call for action by the House on immigration. “I do believe that having a significant number of [Senate] Republicans will change the dynamic in the House,” Schumer said.

Late last week, Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and John Hoeven (R-ND) cooked up a compromise to allay conservatives’ concerns that the bill didn’t do enough to tighten security along the U.S.-Mexican border. Their amendment would authorize $30 to $40 billion of increased spending in the coming years for a military-style “surge” in border guards, aerial drone surveillance, and an additional 700 miles of fencing and radar.

The first big test will come Monday evening, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has scheduled a vote on ending the debate. “We are very, very close,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the “Gang of Eight,” said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The amendment gets us over the top.”

Yet prospects for passage in the House of anything vaguely resembling the Senate bill seem remote at best. House Republicans once stood behind their leaders and a “Contract for America” back in the early 1990s. But since the Republicans regained control of the House in 2010, they’ve routinely engaged in ideological free-for-alls that have kept Boehner and other House leaders on tenterhooks.

The defeat of the farm bill last week after the defection of 62 Republicans was only the latest in a series of humiliations endured by Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).  Rank and file conservatives balked when Boehner tried to push through a “Plan B” alternative to the fiscal cliff last year, and 179 House Republicans voted against $50.5 billion in aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy early this year despite leadership pleas for support.

Now, with immigration reform, Boehner faces a more perplexing challenge. He’s attempting to balance the parochial interests and political needs of his members against a compelling argument for legislation to finally resolve the status of millions of illegal immigrants living in the shadows. 

Some prominent Senate Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida, Graham and Corker have pushed for the bipartisan legislation in the face of strong opposition from Tea Party members and conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation. 

They’re aware that GOP leaders want to avoid a repeat of Mitt Romney’s defeat in last November’s election and are urging Republican lawmakers to reach out to Hispanic voters by endorsing immigration reform. But those pleas are falling on deaf ears among Republicans from congressional districts with small percentages of Hispanic voters, where anti-immigrant fever often runs high.

Indeed, more than 60 percent of House Republicans represent populations less than 10 percent Hispanic, and nearly 80 percent represent districts with Hispanic populations below the national percentage. That provides less of an incentive to vote for the “Gang of Eight” bill or one that is similar, according to a Politico analysis.

There is little support in the House for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Rather, the preference is for a piecemeal approach – beginning with tougher border measures and dragnet-like measures to round up illegals already here.

For example, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced a measure to empower state and local governments to take part in enforcing federal immigration law. That’s expected to pass.

Boehner made clear he’s gotten the message, announcing after a closed door session with his members last week that he would keep an immigration reform bill off the floor unless he’s convinced it would pass. “Any immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties’ support if we’re really serious about making that happen,” he said.

The situation could change – but for now Boehner faces a difficult paradox.

House members’ jobs have been made secure by carefully gerrymandered seats. So the most conservative and rebellious House Republicans aren’t likely to change their ways until they hit political rock bottom or are confronted with a national crisis.

Hitting rock bottom would mean taking a stance so unpopular that the GOP would lose their majority in the House. House Republicans came close to such a calamity over increasing the debt ceiling in 2011 and the fiscal cliff deal at the start of this year. Each incident involved the threat of recession. Boehner broke with the majority of his caucus to include a tax hike on all but the one percent in order to get fiscal cliff deal.

Therein lies the paradox. Boehner has led in recent months as though his job is to prevent that rock bottom from ever occurring. Yet without a painful catharsis, not enough congressional Republicans have an incentive to change their resistance to immigration reform, a regular order budget deal, or any major compromise with President Obama on entitlements, taxes and the environment.

In short, Boehner is trapped by a devotion to the Grand Old Party itself.