It's plausible that Boehner is searching for a messaging device to improve his party's dismal standing with fast-growing Hispanic voters -- just three in ten Hispanics said in a recent poll they feel close to the GOP, while six in ten said they feel closer to Democrats. Passing incremental pro-immigration bills in the House, even if they don't become law, may smooth the GOP's rough edges with immigrant voters in the 2014 congressional elections. If nothing else, it might soften the blowback for scuttling comprehensive reforms, maybe even dampen Latino turnout. Republicans would be able to claim they voted for pro-immigrant reforms, even if they focus on legal immigration and avoid the more controversial issue of what to do about the 11 million people living in the country illegally.
"Like most savvy DC players, Boehner will want to try to put himself in a win-win position. He'll want to force Democrats into accepting a conservative version of immigration reform or, should Democrats refuse to go along, win the ensuing blame game," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice. "But with the GOP brand already tarnished as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino, I think he'll find that the only way out of the hole the GOP has dug for itself on this issue is a bipartisan breakthrough."
Doing something -- anything -- is a political imperative for Boehner, lest he dampen his party's hopes of capturing the White House in 2016. Since the GOP's crushing defeat in 2012, his actions haven't helped the party with Latinos, as he has instead catered to the base's preference for a more restrictive immigration policy. The only immigration item that Boehner brought up for a House vote in 2013 was Rep. Steve King's (R-IA) legislation to require the deportation of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, commonly referred to as Dreamers. All but six Republicans voted for it, and it passed the House (then died in the Senate). That bill and its sponsor, who sparked a firestorm by likening Dreamers to drug mules, are kryptonite with Hispanics.
"This is an issue that drives Latino voters," said Laura Vazquez, senior legislative analyst for immigration at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "They're watching it very, very closely."
The much harder task would be to come up with an immigration bill that can actually pass both chambers and be signed by President Barack Obama -- in an election year. Senate Democratic leaders don't want to pass a scaled-back version of their comprehensive bill, which received a remarkable 68 votes. They may be open to a compromise that legalizes undocumented immigrants and lets them pursue citizenship through existing channels. An outside possibility is that Democratic and Republican leaders cut a deal on legislation that can be pushed through both chambers. But no such talks are happening, at least for now.
"The Speaker has been very clear: he supports step-by-step, common-sense reforms to fix our broken immigration system," said his spokesman, Michael Steel, in an email.
"I'm still guardedly optimistic," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told the Arizona Daily Star recently. "Frankly, I don't think that the speaker would have hired Becky Tallent if he hadn't been very interested in moving legislation. The question is how does he do it."
Some Democrats and members of the outside pro-reform community are pleased with Boehner's recent moves. "I think he's serious about trying to get a resolution on immigration reform," said Vazquez. "I think he's demonstrated with the hiring of Becky Tallent that he wants to figure out how to get to a resolution. Speaker Boehner has consistently been saying that this issue is important to the country and needs to be addressed."
But the Speaker faces important obstacles even if his endgame is more about messaging than results. Firstly, conservatives don't trust him on the issue and may not go along with his plans. Secondly, there's no internal consensus among House Republicans on which immigration reforms to enact. Thirdly, primary season is coming up and members will be watching their backs for conservative challengers ready to pounce on them if they support more lenient immigration laws.
"It's up to him to find a way to move these bills forward," said Vazquez.
Perhaps Tallent, whom Boehner hired one month ago, can help guide the Speaker through this mine field in the new year. A former chief of staff and presidential campaign aide to McCain, and the recent head of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, she specializes in devising ideas and crafting bills that can achieve support.
"The budget agreement was a bipartisan breakthrough that I hope will lead the way to more in 2014, including the passage of immigration reform through the House," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in an emailed statement to TPM.
Sharry insists that political gamesmanship without tangible results won't save Republicans. Unless they support a bipartisan solution for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants, he said, "it is likely the GOP will be permanently defined as the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino party."