Rock Meets Hard Place

The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Arizona, March 29, 2013. Samantha Sais--Reuters

Last week, John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, was sitting down to breakfast at Pete's Diner, his regular Capitol Hill haunt, when two teen immigration-reform activists, video camera running, interrupted his morning routine.

They told the speaker how deportation had threatened to break up their families and asked him to do "whatever is in your power" to pass immigration reform.

"All right," Boehner said as he shook pepper onto his breakfast. "I agree with you."

"I'm trying to find a way to get this thing done," he assured them. "It's not going to be an easy path forward, but I've made it clear since the day after the election that it's time to get this done."

As the two activists knew, Boehner doesn't need to engage in political gamesmanship to get reform done. Democrats believe there are already enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass a comprehensive bill and have it on the president's desk by Thanksgiving. All Boehner has to do is bring the bill to the floor.

But the speaker is choosing another route to get immigration reform done. One that will keep the Tea Party from revolting, but carries a higher risk of failure.

"It's really all in John Boehner's hands," said Representative John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, who worked on a bipartisan immigration bill that died this fall without the support of the Republican leadership. "I mean, it is one person right now."

The future of both the Republican and Democratic parties depends on Boehner's decisions over the next few months. Without reform, Republicans' already paltry support among Latinos will continue to dwindle, and their prospects for winning the White House in 2016 will disappear.

The future of the Democrats is on the line too. They expect to take credit for immigration reform if it passes. But some Democrats feel that by keeping it on the table they will more easily be able to attack Republicans in 2014 and 2016. Yet that could be a self-defeating strategy. Failing to pass immigration reform in the full eight years of an Obama presidency would disillusion Latinos, who may blame Democrats for the impasse.

In the end, both parties will lose if reform doesn't pass - though the Republicans will be the bigger loser.

The diner incident did not sway the speaker. Later that day, as a YouTube video of the encounter began to circulate, Boehner clarified where he stood on the issue: The House would not pass a bill this year, and nothing it passes in the future would be reconciled with the comprehensive plan passed by the Senate in June.

Instead of advancing toward reform, it appeared he was taking options off the table.

But he hasn't taken all the options off the table. Despite the obituaries written in the press for immigration reform since his remarks, Boehner wants to pass a series of small bills with the support of half the Republican caucus, allowing him to say he abided by the so-called "Hastert Rule" which traditionally only brings to a vote measures who have majority support among the 117 members of the Republican majority.

So far, he is sticking by this.

"It's important we fix our broken immigration system, but the House is not going to consider any massive, Obamacare-style bill," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. "Instead, we remain committed to a common sense, step-by-step approach that gives people confidence reform has been done the right way."

Democrats say they are open to this approach, and even the president, eager to do something concrete for Hispanics, is willing to try a piecemeal solution. "If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don't care what it looks like," President Obama said Tuesday.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Boehner's dilemma is a political one: Pass immigration reform and help the Republican Party rehabilitate its image with Latino voters, or please the ultraconservatives in his caucus who oppose reform.

Thus far, Boehner is still hoping to thread the needle and do both by finding legislation that half of his caucus can get behind. Democrats say it can't be done. Republicans say it might be possible. The stakes for the GOP are high. Perhaps even terminal.

"If John Boehner stops reform, he's going to go down as the speaker who actually helped kill off the GOP as a national party," said Frank Sharry, who runs the pro-reform group America's Voice.

After President Obama won re-election with 71 percent of the Latino vote, Republicans grudgingly came to terms with the fact that they needed to get on the right side of the immigration issue if they want to compete again nationally. Their reputation in the Latino community was defined by opposition to reform, support for deportation policies and the extreme rhetoric of some Tea Party Republicans.

In its official post mortem on the 2012 elections, the Republican National Committee practically pleaded with lawmakers to pass reform. "We are not a policy committee," the March 2013 report read, "but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform."

"If Republicans don't do anything, the narrative you are going to hear is: Republicans haven't done anything on immigration because they don't like us," said Alfonso Aguilar, a former George W. Bush administration official and part of the pro-reform Republican camp. "If we do this now, we're going to have time to rebuild relationships with the community, change that narrative."

But conservative House Republicans have rejected this message, along with the outside groups who fund challengers to any Republican lawmaker without a pristinely conservative voting record. Since redistricting in 2010, Republicans have set up safe congressional districts so that they couldn't lose to Democrats.

But making their districts whiter and more conservative left them vulnerable to primary challenges from the right. Most believe Boehner must choose between pleasing the Tea Party rump in his caucus and the big-money Republican establishment who are worried about the party's chances in both Congress and the presidential election of 2016.

Boehner is trying to please them both, or at least let the Tea Party down gently.

"You've got a conflict on the Republican side," Yarmuth said, between those who are looking at the GOP's long-term prospects and "individual members who think that it's not in their best interest to vote."

After the election, two bipartisan groups of eight, one in the House and one in the Senate, set to work crafting comprehensive bills. The Senate bill ultimately passed the upper chamber on a bipartisan vote. The lower chamber's bill, the one Yarmuth worked on, was abandoned by three of its Republican drafters, as the Hill recently reported, because of a lack of support from Boehner.

In October, House Democrats introduced HR-15, a comprehensive plan based on the Senate bill. Thus far, three Republicans have signed on to it. Meanwhile, House Republicans continue to work behind the scenes on a piecemeal approach to pass a series of smaller bills in lieu of a big one.

"The Republicans remain committed to a piecemeal approach that includes a legalization program," Aguilar said this week after meeting with key House Republicans on the issue.

With the clock ticking on reform, pressure from outside groups is mounting. Two labor unions, the AFL-CIO and SEIU, are running ads in competitive districts, tying vulnerable Republican congress members to comments from their extreme colleagues who have called undocumented immigrants "terrorists," "vagrants," and "drug mules," and Representative Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, saying, "I'll do anything short of shooting them."

Some reform groups have begun to use hunger strikes to agitate for reform. Local chambers of commerce continue to lobby lawmakers on the issue. But ultimately Democrats still believe Boehner will have to cave and pass reform with fewer than the 117 votes he is hoping for. "I just don't think those votes are there," one Democratic aide involved in the reform effort said.

There is, of course, an alternative for Republicans. They could muster the votes to pass a series of harsh enforcement and border security measures as well as some form of legalization for the 12 million undocumented immigrants that are too distasteful to garner Democratic support, then blame Senate Democrats for not passing their bills.

"They think that that's enough to give them cover and say they are not extreme on immigration," said the aide. "I don't think that's actually a winning strategy for them."

But Republicans may be less interested in a win than a draw, making Latinos angry at both parties. After all, Republicans don't need a majority of Latinos to win back the presidency; they just need about 40 percent.

"There would definitely be a political cost for [Democrats] if they bring down a legalization bill in the House just because it doesn't have everything they want," Aguilar predicts, arguing that some Democrats might prefer to scuttle reform as a political tactic.

"The concern is really that if nothing happens on immigration reform, the attention is going to turn to the White House," said the Democratic aide. "Either the White House does something and gets the Republicans really mad and again plays into that talking point of 'We protect America from Obama,' or he doesn't, the deportations continue and Democrats go into 2014 with more lukewarm support from Latinos."

"We're deporting 400,000 people a year," said the aide, which works out to about 1,100 per day. "So there's a cost to waiting as well."

While Latino voters were critical to Obama's success in 2012, there are also signs they were disappointed in the president, with the share of eligible Latino voters dropping from 50 percent in 2008 to 48 percent in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. When victory comes down to key swing states like Colorado and Florida, those margins make all the difference.

Yarmuth believes Democrats have done enough to convince Latino voters of their dedication to the issue. "The fact that the Senate passed a bill, that we had 68 votes in the Senate, a majority of them Democratic votes, that we've been pushing it very hard, that our leadership has been meeting with people throughout the spectrum of interested groups, that our Democratic leaders are out there at these demonstrations, these rallies, and the president who has made it one of the top things on his agenda, I think it's more than just saying we're for it," he said. "If you're saying we might be perceived as just paying lip service to it, I think that's probably unlikely."

With the 2014 midterm elections looming next November, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the window for reform in the House closes after the spring. That gives Boehner and pro-reform Republicans a few months to convince Republicans to vote against their own interests but in favor of the GOP's in 2016.

If he doesn't hit 117 votes, the speaker, whose hold on his conservative caucus has always been tenuous, must decide whether to throw his party - or himself - under the bus.

"It is a difficult game of political chess," Aguilar said. "But at least there's a game. That I can tell you."