Boehner’s Immigration Cojones

Eleanor Clift
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FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2013, file photo House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and House Majority Leader Eric Canton of Va., right, leave after a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. The ups and downs Boehner in 2013 dramatize the difficulties of managing a narrow Republican majority in the House. Some associates and observers say the low point of Boehner’s year was almost a year ago, Jan. 3, 2013, the first day of the 113th Congress. With the Ohio Republican’s family watching from the House gallery, a dozen defiant GOP lawmakers refused to back his bid to be re-elected speaker. The mini-rebellion fell short, but it delivered an embarrassing rebuke from conservatives. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

House Republicans are quietly making progress on overhauling the nation’s broken immigration system, boosting hopes that a deal might be reached in Congress this year. Despite the corrosive partisanship that has stymied congressional action in most areas, five bills attacking various components of reform have already been voted out of committee, with others in the works, confounding naysayers who said reform was dead when the House refused to take up a Senate bill that passed with strong bipartisan support early last summer.

“If what we hear is as good as it sounds, it’s the makings of a deal,” says Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group.  

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The major sticking point is Democratic insistence on providing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Republicans see that as rewarding illegal behavior, and behind closed doors are trying to come up with a formulation that would grant legal status but without any “special” path to citizenship.  

The GOP would have them get in the back of a very long line, which would take even longer than the 13-year timeline that the Senate bill proposes. Republicans recognize that’s a non-starter and so in their backroom deliberations are reportedly discussing a “Dream Act” provision to put young people brought to the country as children on a fast track to citizenship, along with faster citizenship for agricultural workers as an incentive to keep them on the farm, literally, where their labor is essential. 

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“The big question is the 11 million and whether a framework like that will get a majority of the Republicans and enough Democrats,” says Sharry. “If they can’t come up with that, the rest is chit-chat. It’s not going anywhere.”

Speaker Boehner signaled that something might be up when late last year he hired Rebecca Tallent, a legislative aide who had worked closely with Senator John McCain on crafting immigration reform legislation during the Bush administration. The comprehensive bill co-sponsored with the late Senator Kennedy ultimately was unsuccessful, but Tallent’s skills are in drafting legislative language to bridge differences, and in her depth of knowledge about the issues.

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In selling reform to his members, Boehner stresses that anything that emerges will be unlike the Obamacare abomination: it will be several bills, put before the House and voted upon separately. The idea is to pass components of reform that will give the House a stake in negotiations with the senate.  

Normally, legislation passed by the House would go into conference with the senate, with individual conferees named on each side, and from each party. But any conference is likely to be informal, perhaps with lead negotiators the way it was done recently on the budget with Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Patty Murray. Ryan could play a similar role on immigration with Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican McCain, the lead negotiators on the senate bill, taking a lead role.  

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President Obama has said he’s open to separate bills, and Sharry, a long-time activist on immigration reform, says, “What’s the difference between 8 bills and a bill with 8 sections as long as they pass at the same time.” What’s more important, he says, is the details of granting legality to the 11 million people here illegally, whether it’s “generous or stingy,” which would influence whether Democrats could accept it and set aside their longstanding demand for a path to citizenship.

Of the five bills that have passed out of committee so far, only one has bipartisan support. It covers border security, and came from the Homeland Security committee. The other four received only Republican support in the Judiciary committee. Democrats say Republicans were more interested in getting GOP unity and deliberately wrote the bills in a way that Democrats could not support them. For example, Sharry says a bill on agricultural workers creates a “newfangled bracero program” as opposed to balancing industry and worker rights like the senate bill does. The other bills from the Judiciary committee cover internal security, a mandatory e-verify program and visas for high-skilled workers. 

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Speaker Boehner’s intentions are key.  Because of Tea Party opposition, most observers figured if Boehner went ahead with immigration reform, it would be his last hurrah, and he would be forced to resign as Speaker.  But that narrative could be changing. In the final days of last year’s Congress, Boehner spoke for a lot of Republicans when he said he had had enough with being led around by the Tea Party and their fundraising benefactors.

There are 234 Republicans, and to adhere to the Hastert Rule, Boehner would need at least 117 Republicans before he could bring immigration reform proposals forward. Sharry calculates there are150 Republican votes in play for something, meaning a significant number of Democrats would still be needed to reach 218.  A letter to Boehner urging no action on immigration reform circulated by Texas Rep. Steve Stockman reportedly got fewer than 20 signatures. “The Hell No caucus might not be quite so strong,” says Sharry.  If the newfound energy for reform can withstand the assault sure to come from the right, the politics of 2014 could look very different from what had been predicted.

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