Is this really the first time that Boehner’s ruled out conferencing with Reid on the Schumer/Rubio plan? I could have sworn that he’s done it before, but maybe I’m wrong. He’s spent months taking baby steps towards a more cautiously conservative position on amnesty — first ruling out a floor vote on Schumer/Rubio in the House unless a majority of House Republicans support it, then ruling out a floor vote altogether, then dropping the subject of legalizing adult illegals and talking up some version of the DREAM Act instead. Last month, GOP Rep. Matt Salmon claimed that Boehner had taken the next step and ruled out going to conference on Schumer/Rubio. Not until today, apparently, did Boehner finally confirm that that’s true. (Actually, he says “we have no intention” of ever going to conference on it, which isn’t exactly the same thing. I don’t think he’s trying to be cute with his phrasing, though.) That’s a win for border hawks, as the great fear ever since Schumer/Rubio passed the Senate was that the House would pass something that’s tough on border security to impress conservatives and then quietly replace it with the Senate bill during the conference committee before passing the latter through the House. No chance, says Boehner. I wonder why he changed his mind.

Three possibilities. One: Rubio, who recently kinda sorta withdrew his support for his, er, own bill, gave Boehner the political cover he needed to kiss-off the Gang of Eight. If the most prominent proponent of comprehensive reform in the Senate says it’s a bad idea at this point then amnesty fans can go grumbling to him when Boehner walks away. Two: The politics have changed. Six months ago, after a bruising loss in November, the GOP was in full pander mode. Six months later, with Obama’s approval rating in the toilet and Democrats killing each other over ObamaCare, it’d be stupid to throw them a lifeline or to change the subject. Three, the cynical view: Maybe Boehner doesn’t need the Gang of Eight bill to make the GOP establishment’s amnesty dreams come true. He keeps talking up step-by-step piecemeal reform, but that can mean a lot of things. A lot of bad things, says Andrew Stiles:

But critics fear that the House leadership’s desired strategy is to introduce a series of individual bills (dealing with issues of border security, interior enforcement, guest workers, and citizenship for at least some illegal immigrants), pass them “step by step” with the full intention of cobbling them together into a comprehensive final package and potentially taking it to conference with the Senate. This concern has only been exacerbated by the leadership’s continued refusal to explicitly rule out this scenario…

As it stands, two pieces of (currently nonexistent) legislation are likely to provide the framework for a comprehensive reform plan that President Obama and Senate Democrats could ultimately accept: the so-called KIDS Act, which would offer citizenship to younger immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, and another proposal rumored to be in the works that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship through existing legal channels, which reportedly has the support of influential Republicans such as Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) and Paul Ryan (R., Wis.). Given the furious extent to which big business groups are lobbying for an immigration-reform bill, and the GOP’s own political insecurities on the issue, it is not inconceivable that a majority of House Republicans could end up backing such a proposal, even if the conservative base revolts.

It’s nice to have the Gang of Eight bill off the table, but (a) realistically it’s been off the table since Rubio walked away from it and (b) don’t underestimate House Republicans’ ability to write their own terrible comprehensive bill. Two clips for you on that note, one of Boehner’s announcement and the other of him fielding questions from earnest young immigration reform fans at breakfast recently. He wants to get something done. Just not what the Senate has in mind.