The GOP’s blowout victory last week came with an important catch: it’ll be difficult to replicate in 2016. The race for the White House is more likely to turn out the Democratic base and Hispanic voters are poised to play a key role in battleground states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) recognizes this conundrum, complicated by his Republican members who nixed an immigration reform bill passed by the Democratic-led Senate. It’s too risky to pass comprehensive immigration reform because the GOP base staunchly opposes it, and it’s too risky to do nothing because that could imperil the party’s hopes of winning the presidency.
So Boehner in recent days has begun laying the groundwork to blame the failure of immigration reform on President Barack Obama’s upcoming executive actions, which are expected to temporarily relieve some immigrants from the threat of deportation. House Republicans want to take on immigration reform, he says, but Obama will “poison the well” if he acts unilaterally.
“I’ve made clear to the President that if he acts unilaterally on his own, outside of his authority, he will poison the well and there will be no chance for immigration reform moving in this Congress. It’s as simple as that,” Boehner told reporters on Thursday. “When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself. And he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path.”
Boehner insisted the House was poised to act, though he declined to promise a vote on immigration if Obama backed off executive action. He also resisted the premise that Republicans were the ones who yanked him back from legislative action.
“No, no, no, no, no, no. … What held us back last year was a flood of kids coming to the border because of the actions that the President had already taken,” Boehner said, referring to the surge of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, which spiked in May.
The history of immigration reform in the 113th Congress is less simple.
After Obama’s reelection victory, a group of Senate Democrats and Republicans wrote a broad immigration reform bill backed by Hispanics, business leaders, labor unions and Silicon Valley— it passed with 68 votes. House Republican leaders immediately squashed it, promising they’d pass their own legislation.
But that never happened, even though Boehner and his allies made repeated overtures to his Republican members, urging them to embrace the need for reform. His final effort came in January 2014, when he released a set of “principles” for reform which included legal status — without the promise of citizenship — for people living in the U.S. illegally.
It went nowhere: just 19 GOP members signed on to it, according to a whip count by Roll Call. Boehner soon threw in the towel, and from there the issue went on to die a slow death. The final nail in the coffin was the stunning primary defeat of pro-reform House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in early June, which spooked Republicans.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, right, looks on as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., speaks on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A few weeks later, on June 30, Obama appeared in the Rose Garden and announced that Boehner had privately told him the House would continue to block immigration reform for the rest of the year, and so he would use his executive authority to make changes on his own.
“America cannot wait forever for them to act,” the President said.
For political reasons the White House opted to delay that executive action until after the midterm election. Despite his party’s resounding defeat last week, Obama has promised to act and announce his steps by the end of the year.
Immigration reform is a gateway issue for Latinos, as the Republican National Committee warned in an autopsy of the party’s 2012 defeat. “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the March 2013 RNC report said.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who commissioned the report, is now singing a different tune as he eyes the big prize in 2016. He, too, is laying the groundwork to blame Obama for the failure of immigration reform, firstly by accusing him of failing to “secure the border” and secondly by calling his vow of executive action “a nuclear threat to reject the basis of the separation of powers doctrine” at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters on Friday.
The battle lines are drawn in the next Congress as Republicans gear up for an aggressive fight against Obama’s executive actions, exploring options like withholding government funding, suing him, or blocking his nominee for attorney general unless he backs down. The fight stands to endear the GOP to its immigration-wary base, but it carries the risk of further alienating Latinos, who have been clamoring for relief by executive action since legislation stalled.
The trap for Republicans is that the electorate in 2014 probably won’t resemble the electorate in 2016. Overall voter turnout was a mere 36.6 percent in 2014; it was close to 60 percent during the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012. Hispanic Americans accounted for a significant share of the midterm drop: about 31 percent of them turned out in the midterm years of 2010 and 2014, according to Pew Hispanic, while 48 to 50 percent turned out in 2008 and 2012.
The upshot of Boehner’s plan — if it succeeds, which is doubtful — would be to obscure the difference between the two parties on immigration reform, and either swing some Hispanic voters to the GOP tent or otherwise depress their enthusiasm for the Democrats in 2016.