So the big House Republican confab on immigration has come and gone, with plenty of both public and private reporting of what transpired. Lest anyone be confused by the meaning of John Boehner’s plea to his Republican colleagues to take action on immigration reform, the argument is not between those supporting cooperation with the Senate or with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform and those opposed. Oh no. It’s between those who want to pass a Republicans-only (or mostly) bill (or collection of individual bills) that rejects a path to citizenship and makes legalization contingent on “enforcement first,” and those whose mistrust for Boehner and other Republican leaders is so intense that they’re afraid to do anything that will lead to a House-Senate conference and a possible “stab in the back” ploy to pass the Senate bill with mostly Democratic votes.
The bottom line was clear: The Republican-controlled House does not plan to take up anything resembling the Senate bill, which many believe is bad policy and smacks of an amnesty strongly opposed by the conservatives who hold sway over much of the rank and file. The House also does not intend to move very quickly, and some Republicans are wary of passing any measure at all that could lead to negotiations with the Senate, talks that could add pressure to the House to consider a broader plan.
It is to this last group, which prefers inaction, that Boehner was addressing his pleas to do something that party messagers could describe as a stab at immigration reform. Sure, there’s no plausible way this could lead to an actual law being enacted, but Republicans could always blame Democrats for a refusal to compromise, and keep the interpretive waters nice and muddy. And indeed, if you listen to conservatives on this subject, it’s clear they want to reclaim the issue by insisting that their enforcement-first or enforcement-only approach is the only true “reform.” And it’s equally clear that Boehner wants a bill–any bill–so that the failure of immigration reform is not pinned on him as a simple failure of leadership.
So who’s going to win this intra-Republican argument? It’s not clear yet, but I’d guess conservatives will go along with doing something on immigration, even if it’s the wrong thing, and totally irreconcilable with the Senate bill, if Boehner gives them additional public assurances he won’t stab them in the back via concessions in a conference committee. Rep. Tom Cotton, that Great Right Hope from Arkansas, may have laid out the path for the future today in a Wall Street Journal op-ed demanding a pre-agreement from the leadership that there will be no actual negotiations with the Senate:
[T]he best solution is to abandon the Senate bill’s flawed framework and proceed with an enforcement-first approach that assures Americans that the border is secure and immigration laws are being enforced. The House is already pursuing that goal with committee-approved bills such as the Legal Workforce Act, which expedites the employment-verification system, and the SAFE Act, which empowers local and state law-enforcement officers to enforce immigration laws.
If the full House approves such bills, they should be sent directly to the Senate for consideration. They should not be handed to a conference committee so that they can be reconciled with the Senate bill—the Senate and House measures are irreconcilable. Instead, the Senate must choose whether it wants common-sense, confidence-building immigration legislation this year.
If the Senate insists on the legalization-first approach, then no bill will be enacted. Meanwhile, the House will remain focused on addressing ObamaCare, the economy and the national debt—which, after all, Americans overwhelmingly regard as higher priorities than immigration reform.
From Cotton’s point of view, the idea of demanding an up-or-down Senate vote on a House-passed immigration bill is no more unreasonable than the earlier demands from comprehensive reform supporters and shadowy Republican tacticians that the House vote on an unmodified Senate bill. But putting all this aside, it’s important to understand that the question on the table isn’t whether comprehensive immigration reform is allowed to die in this session of Congress, but what will be written on its tombstone.