The budget deal is a testament to the politics of exhaustion. And exhaust.
House Republicans were beaten up and bedraggled and justifiably feared a shutdown sequel as futile and stupid as Anchorman 2 appears to be. The White House was and remains exhausted by the agonies of Obamacare and wouldn’t open up a second battle front on the budget — especially when House Republicans were willing to sue for peace on the second year of sequestration. Senate Democrats were empowered to cut the deal and did so by reviving the time-honored Washington tradition of trading spending now for savings much, much later.
The contours of the deal thus established, the House passed the budget deal and fled the Capitol for the exhaust fumes of waiting airliners at neighboring airports. The Senate is about to do the same, leaving behind vapor trails of bipartisan peace on earth and good will toward appropriators.
Of course, the path to this two-year spending cease-fire was paved over the bowed backs of conservative advocacy groups — most aligned with tea-party sentiments, some that popped up to profit from them — who helped create the House Republican majority in 2010 and protect it in 2012.
House Speaker John Boehner twice called the conservatives’ bluff and bulldozed them. It was a first, and the relish with which Boehner dispatched his conservative critics (and the not-so-quiet cloakroom and corridor huzzahs he received from rank-and-file Republicans) raises this juicy question: Did it foreshadow a breakthrough on immigration?
Immigration is, after all, the last remaining domestic priority President Obama and Boehner share. Obama and Boehner’s relationship, while not warm, is less confrontational and more routinely civil. They’ve spoken twice since mid-November. Obama called Boehner to wish him happy birthday on Nov. 17 and after the House passed the budget deal. Dealings on Obama’s State of the Union address, previously a bit nettlesome at the staff level, were routine.
This doesn’t mean immigration can or will pass. But irritants of the past are precisely that. New possibilities have presented themselves, and the political and tactical climate may, several months hence, be such that Obama and Boehner find passing immigration reform irresistible.
Obama has already sent signals to this effect. He no longer demands the House pass the Senate immigration bill. After hinting in July he would accept a piecemeal approach, he repeated the statement again in September and did so unequivocally in November. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had to reluctantly climb on board, just as she had to do on the budget deal. Obama moved. House Republicans didn’t budge. Obama’s troubles with the Affordable Care Act are not going away. Implementation will continue to present political and operational problems, something the White House knew well in advance of the website fiasco (which is why the bungled rollout will look even worse in the summer of 2014 than it does now). Obama may well need a significant policy victory in 2014, and immigration will be the only live option. It’s no coincidence he reinforced his willingness to accept a piecemeal approach on immigration in the midst of cyclone Obamacare.
Boehner signaled back with the hiring in December of Rebecca Tallent, a former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a key player in drafting the 2007 immigration bill Boehner relentlessly demonized to defeat. Top Obama advisers now believe they have an immigration interlocutor in Boehner’s office. One of the president’s closest advisers told me it’s possible Boehner would have hired Tallent for cynical reasons (to appear more aggressive on reform than he actually is), but there is zero chance Tallent would be so duped. Her treatise on the road to immigration reform speaks for itself.
Tallent’s role gives House Republicans something they’ve never had since 2010 — a staffer who knows immigration policy and politics on both sides of the aisle and has the confidence and respect of the White House and Democrats. Until Tallent arrived, immigration legislation was written by Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s able Judiciary subcommittee staff, many of them holdovers from former immigration hard-liner Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. Smith — and to a certain extent Goodlatte — have specialized in drafting legislation just conservative enough for House Democrats to rebel. Tallent has the expertise, if so empowered by Boehner and the GOP conference, to drive a hard bargain that pulls Democrats farther than they would prefer, but not past the breaking point of compromise.
This may have been why Boehner lowered the boom over the budget. Boehner needed to prove to himself and his conference that defying conservative critics wasn’t suicidal. That lesson will reverberate long after the piddling details of the budget deal are forgotten. And it could provide the legislative and political muscle memory Boehner needs to move on immigration in the spring.
Boehner has to wait for the bulk of primary season to pass (May or June) before serious immigration work can begin. By then, much of the legislation can be written and the calendar cleared for action in the summer. The House GOP leader on the budget deal, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., may emerge as a key figure. Ryan’s pedigree is not on immigration policy, but conference conservatives will follow him. He has the scars of the budget fights, the experience of a national campaign, and a wide-open calendar to freelance now that spending numbers have been set for the next two years. Ryan has boundless policy energy and equally boundless ambition. If Boehner needs or wants a new driver on immigration, one tested by fire from the right, he may well choose Ryan.
Interestingly, Ryan waded straight into the immigration debate Monday on a Wisconsin radio station, defining the limits of acceptable reform.
“First we must have the border security, and independently verified,” Ryan told WTMJ in Milwaukee (listen here.). “First we must have the interior enforcement like E-Verify in place and independently verified before the other parts of the law that they want to go into place go into place,” he said. “So it’s not a ‘trust, hope, and promise.’ It’s a ‘get what we want, verify it’s there.’ Then the rest of the law can be triggered.”
Immigration-reform advocates with ties to the White House see Ryan’s outline as more specific and enforceable than the “triggers” in the Senate immigration bill. They interpret Ryan calling for six or eight separate bills (the now-agreed upon piecemeal approach), starting with border security and interior enforcement followed by the other components of reform — legalization, path to citizenship, agricultural/seasonal workers, and the Dream Act. This process bears a striking resemblance to Tallent’s aforementioned roadmap.
As for the benefits of passing immigration reform, Ryan sounded bullish. “Guaranteed border security, guaranteed interior enforcement, no amnesty — then I think that’s productive. I think that’s in our interest. I think that’s good for our country.”
These are not the words of a Republican fearful of the internal or external politics of immigration reform. Quite the contrary. Ryan held fast on the budget and he and Boehner are both still standing, arguably stronger than at any time since 2010. Amid the vapor trails and exhaust of the holiday season’s mad rush out of Washington, what may have emerged is a new political dynamic in the House GOP, one that could augur well for immigration reform, Boehner, Ryan, and even Obama.
And that’s no smoke and mirrors.
The author is National Journal correspondent-at-large and chief White House correspondent for CBS News. He is also a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.