Boehner to GOP caucus: I'm not committed to moving forward on immigration

A scoop from Jonathan Strong about the mood inside yesterday’s big immigration-reform rollout.

But if the public rollout of the document seemed like an announcement, the feeling inside the room was much more tentative. Speaker John Boehner, in particular, surprised many in the audience with his tepid words on behalf of moving forward.

“He seemed timid or reluctant to suggest that this was anything but a discusssion,” Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) told Breitbart News. “He even said, he made the statement—which I found surprising — that he is not commited to moving forward on any legislation. He wasn’t trying to sell us on this, I don’t think. He was saying the words but it didn’t seem to be coming from his heart.”

Baffling. He waffled last year on immigration reform, then finally mustered the courage to push it front and center this month — in an election year, no less — and now he’s waffling again. The fight to pass something will be wrenching, no matter when it happens and how solicitous Boehner’s language is. Essentially, he’s rolled a grenade into the Republican tent but left the pin in, leaving it up to the caucus to decide whether to pull it. If you’re going to use a grenade, full commitment is part of the deal, no?

Now, question: Would passing reform next year become impossible if the Republicans pick up seats in the midterms, as everyone expects? I argued yesterday that it’ll be harder because grassroots righties will expect a GOP-controlled Congress to produce a much tougher bill than they could reasonably expect to produce now. Matt Lewis counters that I’m missing the point — if the GOP takes back the Senate, grassroots righties will expect them to stay away from immigration entirely, reasoning that if inaction on the matter was no obstacle to a big win in the midterms, it’ll be no obstacle to a big win in 2016 either. True enough, some tea partiers would react that way. My sense, though, is that the rest of the GOP simply Will – Not – Tolerate another presidential election where the Republican nominee has nothing conciliatory to show Latino voters. It may be a myth that Romney lost in 2012 because he got walloped by Obama among that group, but it’s no myth that as the Latino population grows and turnout rates improve, a 72/27 Democratic advantage would be ruinous for the GOP long-term. The core question here has always been whether amnesty is the key to winning back some of those voters, either as a “magic bullet” (even McCain admits it won’t win any votes by itself) or as a sort of threshold issue on which the GOP needs to show compromise so that Latinos will give the rest of their agenda a fair look. Wherever you land on that subject, I think large numbers of centrist/establishment Republicans believe immigration reform is an absolute prerequisite to rebuilding goodwill with Latinos. And I think they’re secretly optimistic that passing amnesty would be a bit of a magic bullet with Latinos as soon as 2016, not enough to cut deeply into the Democratic advantage but maybe enough to trim five points, which could be crucial in a tight election.

So no, I don’t agree with Lewis that a redder Congress would mean doom for reform in 2015 as border hawks shift to an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the GOP’s chances in 2016. We already have painful experience with the reality that midterm results and presidential results are very different creatures. No matter how well Republicans do this year, it won’t be as well as they did in 2010, and 2010 ended up being no impediment to an Obama landslide in 2012. Many, many more Democrats, especially minority Democrats, will be at the polls two and a half years from now to decide who wins the White House than will be at the polls this fall to decide who holds Congress. Even tea partiers who prefer the status quo on immigration should realize that. (Some do. Rand Paul, who’ll position himself as Mr. Tea Party in the election if Cruz doesn’t run, is himself open to forms of legalization if the border is secured.) And speaking of which, why would anyone want the status quo? At the very least, Boehner and McConnell should be expected to pass a serious border security measure next year, if only to dare Obama to veto it. If border security passes, though, Democrats’ new message will be that Republicans are actually becoming more hardline against illegal immigration at a time when polls show the public is willing to allow citizenship eventually for illegals who are already here. What do Boehner and McConnell do then? A limited DREAM-type amnesty? Full legalization contingent upon measurable improvements in border security? Tea partiers may howl, but tea partiers aren’t the whole party; other Republicans will be howling for different reasons. So this brings us back to yesterday’s question: If you’re going to tackle immigration and you know that you’ll have to include some type of legalization for at least some subgroup of illegals, when is/was the best time to do it? Early last year, when House GOPers who voted yes might face a primary this year because of it? Later this year, after the primaries have passed but before the all-important midterm election? Early next year, when they’ll have a redder Congress but might figure that Republican voters will forgive them by the time the 2016 election rolls around?

I’ll leave you with Sean Trende’s theory for why Boehner thinks now is the moment:

If a fight is inevitable, have it now rather than a much messier one in 2015. Maybe the Senate Democrats won’t be able to swallow a bill with tougher enforcement provisions and without a path to citizenship, and they will own part of the death of immigration reform. Or maybe they’ll pass it, and the issue will be partly cleared off the table for an election year. For an establishment Republican, that’s win-win…

What I am saying is that they [the GOP leadership] are closer to neutral about big [midterm] gains than we might think, given the problems that the surge in base enthusiasm caused for them after the 2010 elections. So if they check agenda items like this off the list now and still get a landslide, great. But if they end up cooling off the base’s enthusiasm and get a narrow, establishment-based Senate majority and keep the House, well, that’s not the end of the world either. In fact, it would mean a more docile caucus in both Houses, which is good for those who run those Houses.

If they pass amnesty this summer and Republican voters protest by staying home in November, fine. That means fewer tea partiers end up in Congress next year, which Boehner can live with. If they don’t pass it and Republican voters turn out in force, painting Congress red, that’s fine too. A bigger majority also has certain advantages. There are upsides and downsides to either outcome for Boehner so, he probably figures, why not make his move now?