Will House Dysfunction Save Immigration Reform?

Bill Scher

At TheWeek.com today, I lay out “Boehner’s Dilemma” on immigration. If House Speaker John Boehner lets the Senate immigration bill pass the House with mostly Democratic votes, he risks a Tea Party uprising that could spark primary challenges against several Republican incumbents, not to mention a coup ending his Speakership.

But if he prevents the Senate bill from getting a floor vote, a bill with strong bipartisan support that would surely clear the House given the opportunity, he might spark an even bigger Latino uprising, more powerful that than three-month wave of rallies in 2006 that stopped a House bill turning undocumented workers into felons from becoming law.

All of Boehner’s current rhetoric suggests he’s going to rebuff the Senate, but look closely enough and you’ll see the wiggle room. Michelle Cottle of the Daily Beast reports, “although much has been made of Boehner assuring his conference that he will abide by the so-called Hastert Rule on immigration (meaning that he won’t move a bill that doesn’t have the support of a majority of the majority), Hill veterans note that there are ways around this unofficial mandate. In some cases, leadership can get a majority of its members to express private support for a bill even when they’re unwilling to vote for it … Of the Hastert Rule hubbub, the GOP aide says, ‘It’s kind of a lot of ado about nothing.'”

However, before Boehner can circumvent the Hastert rule to pass the Senate bill, he needs a justification for bringing up the Senate bill. He’s already pledged the House will pass its own bill.

But can the House pass its own bill?

We’ve just seen the House GOP fracture and sink its own farm bill.

And recall back in December, Boehner failed to get his caucus behind his preferred fiscal cliff bill. What happened next? Boehner threw up his hands and relented to putting the Senate fiscal cliff bill on the House floor.

Boehner always tries to get the House to pass its own legislation. A united House GOP caucus gives him negotiating leverage. He can say to the White House and the Senate that nothing can get through unless his Republicans agree.

But when his Republicans can’t agree among themselves, he’s exposed as a feckless leader who can’t deliver, and in turn, can’t set the terms.

And yet, House Republican dysfunction gives Boehner a different sort of power, the power to tell his caucus: you blew it, now I have no choice but to follow the Senate.

If House passes an immigration bill with mainly Republican votes, it will be a right-wing bill that the Democratic Senate cannot stomach. Democrats have already swallowed many a concession in order to make the Senate bill as bipartisan as possible, they can’t go much farther right. Gridlock would be likely.

But if dysfunction reigns in the House, that may offer the best chance for the House to pass the Senate bill as is.

Else Republicans will face a Latino uprising that will put the Tea Party to shame.

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