Three Miracles That Could Save Immigration Reform


Immigration reformers got a boost of confidence recently after three House Republican signed on to sweeping legislation that mirrors the Senate-passed overhaul.

“There’s growing bipartisan support to pass common sense immigration reform in the House this year,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “The only question left to answer is whether Speaker Boehner will schedule a vote and let the majority work its will. Or will Republican leaders continue to stand in the way of reforming our broken immigration system.”

Despite glimmers of hope in the new GOP co-sponsors to the Democratic-led bill, and the fact that senior Republican lawmakers publicly say they haven’t given up, immigration reform remains in purgatory and needs a miracle to be rescued.

The three Republicans who have cosponsored the bill, bringing the number of signatories to 190, are Reps. Jeff Denham (CA), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL) and David Valadao (CA). While it is a significant development, these are the likeliest pro-reform GOP suspects: Ros-Lehtinen represents the largest share of Hispanics in any GOP-held district, according to Census data compiled by the New York Times. Valadao is second on that list, and Denham is eighth. Supporting the comprehensive bill is a political win-win for these members: it gives them political cover with pro-reform constituents in the event that the legislation withers and dies, but stops short of risking their good standing with party leaders.

“It’s important to keep the conversation going in trying to fix the broken immigration system. I favor any approach that will help us move the negotiations forward,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “Other Members may soon produce a bipartisan product that may also deserve support and I’m cautiously optimistic that we can pass meaningful immigration reform.”

There are ultimately three scenarios in which reform can pass Congress — two of them require a willingness from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to cross conservatives, and one of them requires a significant number of GOP lawmakers to cross their leadership.

1) Democrats Score 217 Votes For A Discharge Petition

One way to gauge the seriousness of GOP supporters of reform would be to see if they sign on to a discharge petition — a vehicle that allows the House minority to force a floor vote on legislation by securing 217 — or 218, if current vacancies get filled — signatories for it.

Democrats are facing pressure to resort to option this but haven’t done so yet because they want to give Boehner options to move a bill. They also worry it would be a nonstarter because it requires GOP lawmakers to cross their leadership — discharge petitions virtually never succeed for this reason. As was evident during the government shutdown debacle, Republicans have no appetite to snub their leaders by teaming up with Democrats: not a single one signed the discharge petition for a clean funding measure, even as many called for one.

Any House Republican who signs a discharge petition would turn himself or herself into a target for the GOP base, inviting accusations of betraying conservatives in service of granting “amnesty” to law-breakers. Then come the attacks from advocacy groups and the inevitable primary challenges. It would be a huge — potentially career-ending — risk.

2) Boehner Gets Half Of The House GOP To Support Reform

As Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the chairman of the powerful Energy & Commerce Committee, told his constituents days ago, Republican leaders are working to get half the conference on board for reform. This adherence to the so-called Hastert Rule is central to Boehner’s strategy for passing bills, designed to protect himself from a coup d’etat. GOP opposition to a comprehensive bill is so small that Boehner has flatly rejected that approach. The backup plan is to pass individual bills and go to conference with the Senate. But conservatives see this as a ruse and are pushing with all their might to slam the door shut on any bill or process that may end up normalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants.

There are many obstacles to getting half the GOP conference on board. First, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who has jurisdiction on immigration policy, has ruled out a bill that promises citizenship to anyone living in the country illegally. Second, the most prominent conservative supporter of reform, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), last week came out against conference on the Senate-passed bill he voted for. Without Rubio to help them defend the sweeping bill to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, conservatives would be more skittish about backing it. Third, the shutdown fight left House Republicans bruised and more determined not to line up behind a bill that President Barack Obama wants to make part of his legacy. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) said recently that Boehner assured him the House would only go to conference on individual immigration bills passed by the lower chamber — not on the Senate bill.

“If he allows something to pass out of conference that looks anything like the Senate bill, and it is passed with a majority of Democrats, I think that will be the final thing he does as Speaker,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said this summer.

3) Boehner Allows A Vote On The Senate-Passed Bill

This option is procedurally the easiest of all, but it’d be a death knell to Boehner’s speakership. Despite rumors to the contrary, his office maintains he has no intention of stepping down. He has promised members that he won’t permit a vote on the Senate-approved overhaul, repeatedly likening it to Obamacare — just about the worst insult in the conservative playbook. It’d be a massive breach of trust, from which he probably wouldn’t recover.

The tiny ray of hope here is that Boehner is a pragmatist who cares about his party’s future — which is in peril of immigration reform fails — so if he decides to retire at the end of 2014, he could conceivably decide to incur the wrath of conservatives to secure a major accomplishment. It would be a highly uncharacteristic move, but it’s always an option. All he has to do is allow a vote on the Senate bill, and let Democrats carry it to the finish line.

“This issue has been around far too long,” Boehner said just days after Obama’s re-election, “and while I believe it’s important for us to secure our borders and to enforce our laws, I think a comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”

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