John Boehner’s Narrow Path To Immigration Reform

John Boehner clearly wants to see an immigration bill passed this year, but he has a very narrow path to victory.

John Boehner 2

As the Senate continues to advance debate on its version of comprehensive immigration reform, attention is slowly starting to shift to the House of Representatives where the issue will likely be a major focus of debate during the final part of the current session of the 112th Congress. In the recent past, Speaker John Boehner has made statements that make it clear that he would like to see an immigration bill passed and sent to the President this year, including a recent comment where he confidently predicted that the House would do just that before the end of the year. Despite Boehner’s confidence, though, it’s been fairly clear from the beginning that getting any kind of immigration bill through the House would be a very difficult task, one that could end up costing Boehner his speakership depending on how it plays out. Already, one Congressman has threatened Boehner’s ouster if he even brings an immigration bill to the floor:

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) told World Net Daily radio that Speaker John Boehner should be ousted if he rams through an immigration bill without majority Republican support.

Said Rohrabacher: “If Speaker Boehner moves forward and permits this to come to a vote even though the majority of the Republicans in the House-and that’s if they do-oppose whatever it is that’s coming to a vote, he should be removed as Speaker.”

He added: “I would consider that a betrayal of the Republican members of the House and a betrayal of the Republicans throughout the country

Indeed, earlier today, Boehner himself admitted that it would be next to impossible to get a bill through the House without the support of the majority of the GOP Caucus:

“I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have a majority support of Republicans,” Boehner said during a press briefing with reporters Tuesday.

“I frankly think the Senate bill is weak on border security, I think the internal enforcement mechanisms are weak and the triggers are almost laughable,” he said of the bill drafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Jeff Flake. “So if they’re serious about getting an immigration bill finished, they should reach out to their GOP colleagues to broaden support.”

One theory that proponents of the Senate bill have been relying upon is the idea that if the immigration  bill passes the Senate with a large level of Republican support, it will place pressure on Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership to bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote notwithstanding the so-called “Hastert Rule.” While nobody has been clear on just how large a majority coming out of the Senate, the absolutely low number that most pundits mention is 70 “Aye” votes, which would require at least 14 Republicans assuming that the Democratic Caucus holds together in support of the bill (Red State Democrats like Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu, and Mark Begich are at least questionable when it comes to any of these  high profile votes). While the bill has managed to get over 80 votes in each of the two cloture motions that took place last week, there’s no guarantee that the 20+ Republicans who voted to move debate on the bill forward will necessarily vote in favor of the bill on the final vote. Indeed, many of those Republicans have it clear that they remain uncommitted on the final vote at this point.

Even if immigration bill does get through the Senate with 70+ votes, though, I’m not at all sure that it will mean anything at all for what happens in the House. The Republican Caucus in the House is far different from the Republican Caucus in the Senate in many ways, perhaps the most significant being the fact that it is quite obviously further to the right ideologically. The amount of hostility toward any kind of immigration reform coming from a sizable portion of that caucus makes it seem as though it wouldn’t even matter if the bill came out of the Senate with 85-90 votes in favor. That’s why Boehner, who seems to clearly want some kind of bill to get through the House, finds himself navigating the often strange world of the House GOP’s internal conflicts:

John Boehner wants immigration reform to pass. To get it done, the House speaker will have to capitalize on the widening gap among conservatives, and he’s preparing the groundwork to do it.

The rare split inside the conservative wing of Boehner’s Republican conference offers him an uncommon opportunity to bring a bill to the floor without facing an insurrection among his members. It also means convincing enough conservatives that passing some immigration measure won’t be preamble to the Senate using compromise negotiations to jam a more liberal version down the House’s throat.

As a senior GOP leadership aide put it, “Our conference is all over the place. Our goal here is to try and find that little slice of land where we can walk through and we’re not crucified on either side.”

Republicans on and off the Hill say Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy all want to do something on immigration. Boehner “really wants to get that done but he has to be real quiet about it because if he puts his name on it and his brand on it, like he did with the big (fiscal-cliff) deal, then it’s probably going to die under its own weight,” a former GOP leadership aide said.

So House leaders have been meeting privately with members, making the case that inaction on immigration will be more costly than doing something. Weeks into the debate, it remains a hard sell among reform opponents, particularly members who do not want to offer citizenship to people here illegally. They worry that any House legislation—such as a tough border-security bill most of them are after—will ultimately be watered down in negotiations with the Senate.

“What will have to happen, and is happening in private discussions, is that we have to convince these guys if we’re going to go to conference, we’re not going to cave on our principles,” a senior House GOP aide said. “That is the sales job you have to make to those guys.”

This, of course, is exactly the way things have traditionally worked in the House going back to the days of Sam Rayburn and long before then when House leaders and Committee chairmen would find ways to persuade individual members to vote the way the party wants them to. Quite often, that would be accomplished by promising leadership support for some pet project of the respective Congressman that would benefit his district. In recent years, however, Republicans have acted to eliminate so-called “earmarking” under the false argument that it actually helps to reduce spending. That means that the leadership has far less to offer a recalcitrant member than they used to, leaving persuasion of the kind noted above as the only real argument they can make to members to persuade them to support a particular bill. Add into this the fact that Members of Congress are far less dependent on their political parties now than they were even twenty or thirty years ago and you’ve got a situation where the value of being the “leader” of a caucus, especially it seems  in the Republican party, is far less than it used to be.  Far more than many Speakers before him, John Boehner finds himself holding far less power than the title he holds implies.

So, that leaves Boehner with a dilemma, does he go against a sizable portion of his own caucus to help push an immigration bill, and then a Conference Committee with the Senate, through the House? Or does he bow down to right wing of his caucus and let the bill essentially die, thus handing the Democrats a golden political issue for 2014 and beyond? I think it’s clear that Boehner wants to get something done here, what’s unclear at the moment here is how he’s going to accomplish it.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. steve says:

    short while from now: senate GOP passes immigration reform.

    few weeks later: house GOP votes F*ck No!

    2014: GOP loses ground in congress, then blames the stupid messicans for not understanding how great the GOP is.

    The Ailes/Limbaugh programming is going to result in catastrophic losses for the GOP for years, before anything changes.

  2. legion says:

    John Boehner wants immigration reform to pass.

    John Boehner also wants to not look like a complete knob. But that ain’t gonna happen either. Haven’t Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both already publicly said they’re going to torpedo immigration reform?

  3. steve,

    Given the fact that summer recess is coming up in early August and that the FY 2014 budget must be passed by the end of September, I would not expect to see significant House action on immigration reform until October.

  4. Matt Bernius says:

    The amount of hostility toward any kind of immigration reform coming from a sizable portion of that caucus makes it seem as though it wouldn’t even matter if the bill came out of the Senate with 85-90 votes in favor. […]

    Or does he bow down to right wing of his caucus and let the bill essentially die, thus handing the Democrats a golden political issue for 2014 and beyond?

    There’s another piece of the political calculus to consider — how vocal does Boehner and company allow the opposition to this bill to get.

    Both sides of the political aisle have tied Immigration to the Hispanic community. And while the Hispanic community (such that one exists) are not single issue voters, the fact is that this is an issue they are paying attention to. They have come to understand that when either side talks about immigrants they are talking about *them.*

    And so, while they may not vote based on this issue, there is evidence to suggest that — especially on the State wide and national level — harsh attacks on immigrants as part of the debate around immigration reform make it difficult for the GOP to win over Hispanic voters on all other issues.

    In fact, up until the 2006 failure of immigration reform, Hispanic support for Republicans was trending upward. Granted, as a demographic group they still skewed Republican. GWB’s outreach brought, in 2004, the highest percentage of Hispanic voters since Reagan. Now things have degraded to the point where Republicans lost their vote in 2012 by the highest percentage since tracking began.

  5. Matt Bernius says:

    Acatually Jeff Sessions — who arguably did more than anyone else to torpedo the last round of reforms — is again heading up the opposition to this round. He’s just doing it more quietly than last time.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    I honestly believe that Republican leadership wants the Senate to pass something that will make it appear that Republicans are reasonable on this issue and not all-in on border enforcement and little else – just a little some good publicity before they break for the summer.
    If the Senate can get this proposed bill past John Cornyn and Jess Sessions they (Republicans) can probably fake reasonable appearances.

    After the summer the Republican House will probably destroy any vestige of the reasonable illusion.

  7. Caj says:

    No Republican really wants immigration reform. They are only after votes for election time.
    I suggest John Boehner move to Mexico where he can keep that orange tan 365 days of the year. He can twitch and tan all at the same time!

  8. ernieyeball says:

    @Caj: No Republican really wants immigration reform.

    Unless you spell immigration reform BERLIN WALL!

  9. anjin-san says:

    The GOP message to hispanics has remained pretty constant – “We despise you. PS, we think you are stupid too. Vote for us.”