Boehner’s Immigration Path: Slow Walk Could Be Key

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:15pm

Unlike gun control, whether an immigration overhaul passes in the House is not reliant on first being successful in the Senate.

As Jonathan Strong reported Monday in Roll Call, the issue isn’t whether Speaker John A. Boehner backs a comprehensive rewrite of U.S. immigration law, but which legislative strategy the Ohio Republican favors. Will Boehner endorse a single vehicle modeled on a bipartisan compromise being negotiated by a working group of four House Democrats and four House Republicans?

Or, will the speaker defer to the whims of House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, whose panels are set to review key portions of whatever deal the House “gang of eight” reaches? These two chairmen could exert major influence over whatever legislative product proceeds to the House floor, not to mention whether the chamber votes on one big bill or several smaller ones.

If Boehner has a preference for pushing his conference to support the House group’s comprehensive bill, which could be ready to unveil in May, he hasn’t said so, although he has repeatedly praised its work. But the cagey speaker also has hyped Goodlatte’s role, leaving open the possibility that he will endorse the Judiciary Chairman’s call for immigration changes to be moved in multiple legislative vehicles.

“A House ‘gang of eight’ … continues to make significant progress. In addition to that, Chairman Goodlatte is working diligently with his committee on hearings,” Boehner said during his regular news conference last week.

Writing for New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait correctly intuits that the House will likely move on immigration regardless of what happens with the bill just unveiled by the Senate’s “gang of eight,” in part because of Boehner’s commitment to seeing the issue through. Chait suggests, accurately, I think, that Boehner understands how important passing an immigration rewrite could be for the GOP’s prospects in national and even midterm elections.

But Chait also thinks that Boehner is prepared to jam through comprehensive immigration changes over the objection of a majority of his majority — taking care not to endanger his speakership — for the long-term good of his party. And, on this point, I believe Chait and anyone that agrees with him misses the mark.

Given the skepticism on the right, and among influential conservative commentators, for the path to citizenship that will have to be a part of any immigration overhaul, any appearance of a jam down that relies mainly on Democratic votes to pass might necessarily endanger Boehner’s speakership, and in the process derail the whole process.

Ironically, and although it’s not a popular notion among Washington professionals, being willing to slow walk immigration legislation if that’s what is required to convince members to jump on board the reform train might be the best way to ensure its passage. I think Boehner understands the need to allow this process to unfold somewhat organically, as he said last week.

“You have to remember, about three-fourths of the members of Congress have never dealt with the issue of immigration. So, there’s a big learning curve that the members are going to have to go through. … I’m very happy that the process is continuing,” he said.