Boehner Ready To Back Immigration Reform?
Has Speaker Boehner breathed new life into immigration reform in the House? Maybe.
With Congress ready to get back to work next week, The New York Times reports that Speaker John Boehner is ready to back some form of immigration reform, although not a program nearly as broad as what the Senate passed last year:
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio has signaled he may embrace a series of limited changes to the nation’s immigration laws in the coming months, giving advocates for change new hope that 2014 might be the year that a bitterly divided Congress reaches a political compromise to overhaul the sprawling system.
Mr. Boehner has in recent weeks hired Rebecca Tallent, a longtime immigration adviser to Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has long backed broad immigration changes. Advocates for an overhaul say the hiring, as well as angry comments by Mr. Boehner critical of Tea Party opposition to the recent budget deal in Congress, indicates that he is serious about revamping the immigration system despite deep reservations from conservative Republicans.
Aides to Mr. Boehner said this week that he was committed to what he calls “step by step” moves to revise immigration laws, which they have declined to specify.
But other House Republicans, who see an immigration overhaul as essential to wooing the Hispanic voters crucial to the party’s fortunes in the 2016 presidential election, said they could move on separate bills that would fast-track legalization for agricultural laborers, increase the number of visas for high-tech workers and provide an opportunity for young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to become American citizens.
Although the legislation would fall far short of the demands being made by immigration activists, it could provide the beginnings of a deal.
For Mr. Boehner, hiring Ms. Tallent suggests a new commitment to confronting an issue that has long divided the Republican Party. Ms. Tallent is a veteran of more than a decade of congressional immigration battles and fought, ultimately unsuccessfully, for comprehensive overhauls of the immigration system in 2003 and 2007.
Although Mr. Boehner’s aides say she was brought on to carry out his views and not her own, advocates of immigration change say the only reason for Mr. Boehner to have hired Ms. Tallent is his desire to make a deal this year.
In addition, immigration advocates say that Mr. Boehner’s end-of-year rant against Tea Party groups — in which he said they had “lost all credibility” — is an indicator of what he will do this year on immigration. The groups are the same ones that hope to rally the Republican base against an immigration compromise, and while Mr. Boehner cannot say so publicly, he will have more room to maneuver on the issue if he feels free to disregard the arguments from those organizations.
Aides continue to say that Mr. Boehner remains opposed to a single, comprehensive bill like the Senate-passed measure that would tighten border security, increase legal immigration and offer an eventual path to American citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Conservatives are staunchly opposed to sweeping legislation that would offer a path to citizenship.
“The American people are skeptical of big, comprehensive bills, and frankly, they should be,” Mr. Boehner told reporters recently. “The only way to make sure immigration reform works this time is to address these complicated issues one step at a time. I think doing so will give the American people confidence that we’re dealing with these issues in a thoughtful way and a deliberative way.”
Nonetheless, immigration activists say they are hopeful that politics may ultimately lead Mr. Boehner to ignore conservative voices who oppose a path to citizenship. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, who took a hard line on immigration, won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote — a key reason for his loss to President Obama.
Mr. Obama has in the meantime said he is open to the piecemeal approach on immigration favored by House Republicans, but only if it does not abandon comprehensive goals in legislation that passed the Senate last summer. Reconciling the House approach with the broader ambitions of the Senate bill is the biggest hurdle, strategists in both camps say.
“We’ve got to grab the brass ring while it’s there,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “I’ve been in this debate long enough to know you can’t rely on anything happening at a certain time or on assurances that we’re going to do something this year.”
After the Government Shutdown, there was some indication that the Obama Administration was going to make a push for immigration reform the next item on their legislative agenda. Given that polling at the time showed Congressional Republicans at historic lows while the President and Congressional Democrats were ranking much higher, it’s an idea that seemed to make political sense. For one thing, polling showed broad public support, in some cases even among Republicans, for most of the provisions of the Senate Immigration Bill, including even the idea of “amnesty” and eventual citizenship for those here illegally. Additionally, it’s a move that would put Republicans between the political rock and hard place of the Tea Party on the right, which despite its claims that it is only really concerned about issues like spending and debt, is also virulently against any form of immigration reform, and the growing influence of Latino voters even in traditionally red states. While many Republicans may agree with Boehner that immigration reform is both politically smart and the right thing to do, the threat of a Tea Party primary challenge prevents many of them from saying anything publicly that sounds like they’re getting “squishy” on immigration. Just ask Lindsey Graham, whom most Tea Party supporters now derisively refer to as “Grahmnesty.”
That pressure from the right is why I declared back in October that immigration reform was likely dead in the House for the remainder of the 113th Congress, and perhaps also for the period between 2015 and 2016 that will essentially be a run up to the 2016 elections. This was despite the fact that many business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, along with other more mainstream conservatives maintained that they were still pushing efforts to get the House to take up this issue before the end of the term of the current Congress.
Does Boehner’s position breathe new hope into their efforts?
Possibly. Generally, if the House GOP Leadership wants to get a bill to the floor, it will get to the floor. The question is whether the bill can pass, or at least whether it can pass Congress,or at least whether it can pass with majority GOP support or on the leadership’s decision to allow the so-called Hastert Rule to be violated. In that regard, getting Republicans to vote for any kind of immigration bill is going to have to overcome the fear of Tea Party primary challenges. The best way to do that, of course, is to delay action on any bill in the House until after all, or nearly all, the primary battles are over, or at least until after the deadlines for entering the primary have passed. That would take a tremendous amount of pressure off of legislators who might be inclined to support a bill but who are, naturally, concerned about their own electoral fate. There’s still no guarantee it would succeed, and there would still need to be negotiations with the Senate to resolve differences between the two bills, but it seems to be the only practical way anything will get done this year, or before the next Presidential Election or that matter.
So, perhaps I was premature to declare immigration reform dead, but if it happens it’s going to take a good deal of deft legislative maneuvering and some courage from wavering Republicans in the House. It will be interesting to see what happens.