Why the GOP Wants You to Think There'll Be an Immigration Deal if They Win

John Boehner and the Wall Street Journal are starting to predict a breakthrough, if only Harry Reid loses his job.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) speaks to the media during his weekly briefing at the US Capitol, September 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Speaker Boehner talked about President Obamas address to the nation last night regarding the terrorist group ISIS.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

One month ago, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Speaker of the House John Boehner said something that spoke to the preferences and utter gullibility of Republican donors. Immigration reform, said Boehner, "wasn’t likely to happen this year because of the flood on the border, and the President’s own pounding his chest about using his phone and his pen." Having absolved himself and congressional Republicans from blame for the impasse, Boehner suggested that if the president could "continue to follow the law, and begin to take steps that would better secure our border, it would create an environment where you could do immigration reform in a responsible way next year."

Yes, next year -- that age of boundless dreams, when you'll have lost that extra 20 pounds, when the Cubs will win the World Series, and when Agents of SHIELD will finally be watchable. Boehner was echoed last week by Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a reformer who predicted a new final deadline for a comprehensive bill every three-odd months this year. "I’m hoping we can do it early next Congress," said Diaz-Balart. 

Reformers and Boehner, having failed (by choice) to push for an immigration bill that could have been conferenced with the Senate's bill, are now positing a 2015 grand bargain. The theory: After Republicans take the Senate, they'll be facing a presidential election and the challenge of winning 270-plus electoral votes in a country that is becoming more Hispanic. "We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," wrote an RNC task force in early 2013. "If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."

The party's core is enough this year, but won't be in 2016, so it'd be a big help if a Republican Congress cuts an immigration deal with the lame duck president. The "establishment" is of one mind about this. In the Wall Street Journal, a beachhead of conservative immigration reform, Gerald Seib argues that a reform deal might be a "silver lining for Obama" after a Republican Senate takeover.

How worried are the opponents of reform -- i.e., the people in sync with most Republicans? "The pro-amnesty GOPs certainly want to try, arguing that the House will have an honest negotiating partner in the GOP Senate," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "But I don't see it succeeding -- not only Dave Brat's experience is relevant here, but also if the GOP takes the Senate, many of the winners will have campaigned as immigration hawks -- [Arkansas] Representative Cotton, for example, and even [New Hampshire candidate Scott] Brown. I don't mean to suggest they wouldn't vote for amnesty if they could, but I don't see how they could."

Neither do the House's most reliable restrictionists. "When I first heard that [Boehner] quote," said Iowa Representative Steve King, "I tried to figure this out: Why would anybody figure that amnesty was easier to pass? There’s no mathematical rationale that would indicate that it would be more likely to pass under Republican control of the Senate. If there's no rationale, it has to be a ploy."

In King's view, the "wait til 2015" trope was evidence that the Republican establishment still believed in the "Wednesday morning excuse" for the 2012 election, that "Mitt Romney lost because he said 'self-deport' in one debate."

Yet if the establishment gets what it wants, immigration reform is not likely to start with the new Republican Senate -- much less with members like King. If John Boehner actually wants a bill, it starts in the House with people like Diaz-Balart, and the ideal product will be something Democrats felt bound to support.

"They're going to want to do something before 2016,  though, and I'd expect an attempt at some kind of smaller deal," said Krikorian. "What I'd be willing to consider might be mandatory everify in exchange for making honest women, as it were,  out of the DACAs by giving them green cards. I have no idea if that would fly but since the DACAs have already been amnestied by Obama,  it wouldn't amount to enacting an amnesty, just changing the color of their card."

King was skeptical. "Mark has picked up a thread or two of what I call pragmatism," he said. "If you reward lawbreakers, you get lawbreakers."

Boehner's own dithering about reform has taken that into account. In another September interview, with ABC News, Boehner hinted that reform could happen if the Obama administration didn't scare Republicans away with further executive action. That, he said, would "poison the well." And that, as Dara Lind at Vox.com pointed out, was a phrase Republicans tended to use when they were making an excuse for bolting from the Senate deal.

The reform side is proceeding as if Boehner's check will actually be cashed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent millions of dollars on this year's Senate primaries, aiming -- with success -- to ensure that no unelectable candidates emerged to blow races against Democrats. Yet the candidates it's counting on to win the Senate have sworn oaths against backing "amnesty," against even the Senate bill passed last year.  On the House, Boehner's anti-immigration wing is expected to grow after the November elections.

I asked Rob Engstrom, the national political director of the Chamber, if he expected a Republican Congress to move on immigration.  "You have to have the election, before you can find out what is in it," he said.

The restrictionists think they already know what's in it.

"We had 87 freshman Republicans come into the House in 2010, and I was a little surprised they were as conservative as they were while being undecided on immigration," said King. "I came to the realization that they hadn’t been through immigration debates in most of their careers. Now they've been through one. I’ve watched them move toward the rule of law, and the Constitution, and border security. I think our conference has gotten more solid in opposition to amnesty."

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