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Boehner Can Save His Party and His Legacy | Commentary

With Senate passage of comprehensive immigration reform, the next legislative move is up to the speaker

Recent news about Speaker John A. Boehner paints a picture of a man in a dreadful position. The speaker is in a conundrum. A dire situation, political analysts say.

Yes, the truth is the speaker has one of the toughest decisions to make of his career. With the United States Senate finding the political will to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship — considered the heart of the bill — the next legislative move is completely in Boehner’s hands.

According to politicos, this is a lose-lose scenario for the Ohio Republican.

If he chooses to invoke the “Hastert rule” (an unofficial procedural move in the House where only legislation that’s supported by the majority is brought up for a vote), the Republican-led House will not pass an immigration reform bill with a citizenship provision given the intense opposition to such a measure among Republicans in that chamber.

However, a House bill without a path, while helpful to Boehner to prevent a revolt by his conservative caucus, will effectively kill prospects for immigration reform. President Barack Obama, Senate Democrats and some Senate Republicans, and pro-immigration-reform groups have all demanded that any reform bill include a road map to citizenship. Without a pathway to citizenship, there’s little chance of passing the bill.

Should that scenario unfold, prospects for immigration reform will be dead and the House Republicans, and therefore the entire Republican Party, will be to blame. It will further drive a wedge between the party and the fastest-growing voting groups in the new rising American electorate, Latinos, and Asians and Pacific Islanders.

The ripple effect would be disastrous for the Republicans. It could cost them the White House for several elections to come and maybe even House and Senate seats as early as next year. The speaker’s legacy as the highest-ranking Republican leader under the Obama presidency would not be favorable.

However, if Boehner decides to allow reform legislation to come up for a vote with a road map to citizenship, such a bill will likely pass, mostly with the support of Democrats and some Republicans with growing Latino constituencies or statewide political aspirations beyond their gerrymandered districts. That decision could provoke Boehner’s conservative GOP caucus to revolt and try to force him out as their leader.

That is the stark scenario Boehner finds himself in, analysts say. Yet very little has been said about the momentous opportunities the speaker has to save his party and his legacy.

As leader of a divided House Republican caucus, Boehner has had the thankless job of leading a dysfunctional lower chamber. His own caucus has delivered devastating political blows, including the recent failure by the House to pass a bipartisan farm bill that the Senate can pass, too. As a result, his legacy as speaker is looking rather slim.

Comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship presents a dual opportunity for the speaker. If Boehner were to allow the Senate’s immigration reform bill — or one similar — to come up for a vote in the House, that bill will pass with bipartisan support.

And while conservative House Republicans will try to remove him as their leader, passing reform with a road map to citizenship will allow the Republican Party to move past one of the issues that divides the party the most.

This will allow the party’s next presidential candidate the opportunity to better compete for Asian and Latino voters. A Republican presidential candidate that can attract at least 40 percent of Latinos, as George W. Bush did in 2004, could very well win the White House and help downballot Republican candidates who are running for state and local offices.

Indeed Boehner’s decision to allow such a bill to come up for a vote will be risky, but with it he will effectively help save his party’s long-term national competitiveness.

Passing a bill with a path to citizenship in the House will be Boehner’s key legislative achievement to date. History can conceivably paint him as the redeemer of his party — a champion of civil rights, a protector of our national security and a booster of our economy.

The next move is Boehner’s.

He can choose to make his decision based on the doomsday scenario that some have painted, or he can embrace the consequential opportunities that are before him and those that involve his legacy and his party’s national viability.

Maria Teresa Kumar is president and CEO of Voto Latino.