Boehner's immigration strategy: Let's float some "principles" and see if there's a backlash from conservatives

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict: Backlash.

Is it at all relevant, by the way, that the GOP’s number two in the Senate is now telling reporters that the party can’t win in 2016 if it doesn’t pass reform of some kind?

“We can win in 2014 without resolving it. We can’t win in 2016 without resolving it,” said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and immigration-law expert Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, are writing the principles with Boehner…

Then, according to aides, the plan is to gauge public reaction. If House members are deluged with nothing but hate mail from their districts, Republicans might decide to do nothing but emphasize border security, perhaps even voting on the border bill produced last year. That’s at least until 2014 primary-election filings are over. (The biggest threat to Republicans on immigration is in the primaries anyway, strategists say. No one will lose in the general election because they are too soft on immigration.)

But if leadership’s principles receive some positive feedback, Goodlatte, Cantor, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., could advance legislation they have discussed for the last several months. As yet, there is no legislative language drafted, however. Cantor and Goodlatte have talked about a path to citizenship for undocumented “dreamers” who came to this country as kids. Even Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., is discussing some sort of “Dream Act.” Issa is mulling broader legalization for other unauthorized immigrants. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., is trying to gather support for a legalization plan that would allow undocumented immigrants to get green cards through normal channels, such as children or spouses.

This is at least the second leak to a major media source about the forthcoming “principles” in the last week, even though they haven’t actually been written yet. If you want to know how little confidence you should have in this process, there’s your answer. How the grassroots might react to a new GOP initiative on immigration reform is more important to Boehner and his aides than the substance of the reform itself.

Serious question: At this point, why wait? Cornyn’s view is, I’m all but certain, the view of the majority of the caucus in both the House and Senate. They’re going to pass some sort of amnesty before 2016, be it for DREAMers or something broader. The question is simply when. In that case, what are the arguments for doing nothing this year and waiting until 2015? One, purely viscerally, is that it would be a moral victory over business lobbyists who’ve sworn up and down that they’re going to show the tea party who’s boss by getting immigration passed. But so what? They’ll declare victory anyway when it passes next year instead. Another is that passing amnesty now would move the spotlight off of ObamaCare, which is where the GOP wants it in the run-up to the midterms. I’m not convinced, though. If amnesty gets done, it’ll get done no later than the summer; the fall will be consumed with news of new plan cancellations and stump speeches about the folly of “if you like your plan.” The GOP message machine will be full throttle on O-Care no matter what happens with amnesty, and voters have short memories. Besides, the real battle in the midterms is over the Senate and the Senate passed the Gang of Eight bill long ago. If you want to punish a Senate Republican for his or her vote on that, you don’t need to wait around to see what Boehner does.

The big argument for waiting is that, once the Senate is back in Republican hands, the GOP can dictate terms on immigration reform to Obama. Even if they’re forced to compromise, in theory the final product should be more solid on border security and stricter about legalization than a bill written now would be. But all of that is just another way of asking how much you trust Republicans to drive a hard bargain on this. Per Cornyn, by 2015, they’ll be staring down the barrel of four more years with nothing to show Latino voters by way of immigration reform and a new presidential election right around the corner. They’re not going to hold out for tough legalization measures under those circumstances. (They might hold out for tougher border security.) The closer we get to election day 2016 without a deal, the more leverage Democrats will have in demagoging the GOP, which is an argument for striking some modest deal on amnesty now, while we’re still nearly three years out. That won’t stop the demagoguery — nothing will, including a full amnesty — but it’ll leave it with less teeth. And if you do it now, you know you’ve got new ObamaCare upheaval waiting in the fall that you can use to bring disaffected conservatives back onboard before election day. Look at it from Boehner’s and McConnell’s perspective: If the art of an immigration deal is pandering to Latino voters and big business while minimizing the backlash among the righty base, it makes more sense to pass this when government is divided than when the GOP controls both chambers, no? With government divided, the GOP leadership can kinda sorta spin a compromise bill as a regrettably imperfect solution fashioned by a gridlocked Congress. If Republicans control both chambers, though, there’s nowhere to hide politically. They own the bill, and their only partner on it is The One himself. That might impress Latinos marginally more once something passes, but it also might alienate conservatives more. If nothing else, striking a grand bargain with Obama on amnesty in the last few years of his presidency would give him a little boost for a presidential legacy that stands right now to be defined solely by the ObamaCare debacle. Why do that?

Anyway. Lefty Greg Sargent thinks the GOP won’t agree to a special path to citizenship for illegals but might agree to legalizing illegals with an eye to letting them eventually apply for citizenship under existing channels. Do you find that implausible under a bill crafted by McConnell’s and Boehner’s teams? If so, tell me why. I’m anxious to know.