Boehner's Immigration Playbook Is Full of Bad Options

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With the Senate poised to pass immigration reform, the fate of 11 million people living in the U.S. without papers will soon rest in the hands of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the House of Representatives. For the bill’s supporters, that’s hardly comforting news. The list of major bills and reform efforts that Boehner has failed to rally his party around keeps growing, from the collapsed grand bargain on the deficit to the surprising defeat of the typically uncontroversial farm bill last week. Here’s how things could play out from here:

Test the waters. Because he has sworn not to bring legislation to the floor unless it has support from the majority of Republican House members, Boehner’s first step is to see just where his caucus stands on immigration reform. He’s holding a big meeting on July 10 to do just that. But it’s already obvious that he doesn’t have the votes: If the House were to vote on the Senate’s bill today, by my count, only about 30 or 40 out of 234 GOP lawmakers would get behind it.

Take up a bipartisan bill with a path to citizenship. With the majority of the House GOP not supporting the Senate bill, Boehner can push the House Judiciary Committee to take up a separate immigration-reform bill that’s been written by a bipartisan group of seven House lawmakers. That bill hasn’t been made public yet; lawmakers outside the group haven’t seen it. It reportedly includes a 15-year path to citizenship (vs. the Senate bill’s 10-year process) and takes an even harder line on border security than the Senate bill, which is already planning to give a startlingly large $30 billion boost to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s budget. Because the bill includes a path to citizenship, its chances of getting through the House Judiciary Committee are thin—and they’ve become thinner in recent weeks. As immigration reform draws closer to reality in the Senate, the House has moved in the opposite direction. Earlier this month, the lower chamber voted to reverse President Obama’s policy of giving young immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were 16 a pass to stay in the country legally for two years.

Pass a bill Democrats loathe. Boehner’s other option is to let the committee come up with piecemeal legislation that doesn’t include a path to citizenship and could pass the House without Democratic support. Then it would be up to the Senate to reconcile the two bills. Given how far apart they are, it’s hard to imagine a workable solution.

Whatever the outcome, Boehner is likely to face a huge backlash. Not only from Democrats and Obama—who will make sure Hispanics knows that Republicans shot down millions of immigrants’ chances at citizenship—but also from critics within his own party. Such supporters of immigration reform as Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Karl Rove may take to the cable news circuit to rail against him. Then Boehner will face the real test. He can bow to the Senate and bring a bill to the floor without support from his majority. Or he can stick to his promise and let the overhaul effort die.

Not surprisingly, he has said very little about his strategy: “My job isn’t to try to impose my will on the 434 other members,” he told reporters earlier this month. “My job is to try to facilitate a discussion and build bipartisan support for a product that will address this broken immigration system that we have. … If immigration reform’s going to work, it’s essential that we have the confidence of the American people and that it’s done the right way.”

In other words, he’ll go through the motions and let things play out. And if immigration reform fails, it will be on him.

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