Just as I consistently differ with some of my progressive gabber counterparts in estimates of the relative power of conservative activists and “The Republican Establishment” (guessing that in any confrontation the latter will bend to the former has always been a good bet), I’ve been a lot less sanguine than others about prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in this Congress. Case in point: Jonathan Chait’s piece today on the signals being sent by John Boehner:

Probably the most important development of the entire immigration saga is that John Boehner is finally showing his hand, at least anonymously. Seung Min Kim and Jake Sherman report for Politico, “privately, the Ohio Republican is beginning to sketch out a road map to try to pass some version of an overhaul in his chamber — a welcome sign for proponents of immigration reform.”

Boehner apparently isn’t certain whether his plan will involve passing a bipartisan bill through his chamber or passing some smaller, right-wing bill first. The key thing is the end game. Whatever the House passes, it will prompt a conference to merge the House and Senate bills. In all likelihood, there will be 218 votes to pass some kind of comprehensive reform through the House. But almost certainly, the vast majority of those 218 votes will be Democrats. So the question isn’t whether Boehner will support a comprehensive reform bill, but whether he will let one come to a vote….

There is no doubt that conservatives will revolt against the bill. The major question is whether John Boehner really wants to kill reform, whether he wants to cast a symbolic vote against reform while letting Democrats pass it for him, or whether conservative opponents will force him to keep a bill from coming up. The back-from-the-brink signals sent out by Establishment Republicans suggest Boehner and the party’s Establishment don’t want to kill it.

What Chait is specifically talking about is whether Boehner will once again abandon the Hastert Rule (the legendary leadership principle, actually deployed more often by Tom DeLay, that no bill opposed by a majority of the Republican Conference should see the light of day) to allow some version of a presumed Senate bill, or more likely a House-Senate conference report, to come to the floor in order to be passed by a coalition of Democrats and a smattering of Republicans.

Conservative activists are already outraged by Boehner’s recent violations of the Hastert Rule (five this year, according to one count). You could argue that the fact he’s still Speaker means that he can violate Hastert one more time, or you could counter that he may have run through his nine lives.

But I’m not sure we need even go there, because Boehner’s “signals” could be interpreted a very different way: as encompassing a redefinition of “comprehensive immigration reform” to include the kind of provisions Senate conservatives and House GOPers generally support, particularly “hard triggers” on border enforcement that enable conservatives to claim (with justice) that “legalization,” much less “amnesty,” is unlikely ever to occur. This is, after all, the position that Marco Rubio has been dancing around for weeks. For Boehner even more than for Rubio, being able to claim you’re pro-reform when you’re not, in anticipation of blaming the failure to reach final agreement on unreasonable liberals, has to be a very tempting option.

At a minimum, I think it’s very premature to assume Bohner’s winking at us all and letting us know he’ll let the nativists cut a few capers and make some noise, but will get the Establishment-dictated job done in the end.

Interestingly to me in particular, Chait bases his gut assessment on what will happen on his (which was also my own) mistaken 2012 prediction that conservatives would be able to block Mitt Romney’s nomination. I’d remind him that one big reason Romney won was that he crucially outflanked both Rick Perry (the biggest threat to his nomination) and Newt Gingrich on immigration policy, taking a position well to their right. Yes, Establishment “rebranders” care a lot about repositioning their party on this issue, as do many of the business interests who jostle with ideological billionaires for control of the GOP’s pursestrings. But to a conservative “base” that’s never for a single moment bought the “rebranding” project, this is a fight well worth having, and unless Boehner’s ready to retire to a cushy lobbying gig, it’s not clear he’s ready to do what it takes to win it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.