Inside Boehner’s Election-Year Immigration Strategy

The speaker’s looking to test the waters ahead of primaries, and he’ll score a political win no matter how it turns out.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12: U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) walks to the House Chamber to vote on the recently announced bipartisan budget agreement December 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate is expected to vote on the budget next week. 
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Jan. 14, 2014, 5:10 p.m.

John Boehner is plan­ning to un­veil a set of Re­pub­lic­an prin­ciples for im­mig­ra­tion re­form be­fore Pres­id­ent Obama’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress, aim­ing to show the GOP is not hos­tile to le­gis­la­tion that might win them His­pan­ic voters.

Ac­cord­ing to House lead­er­ship and im­mig­ra­tion-policy aides, the prin­ciples will be broad, neb­u­lous even, and heav­ily fo­cused on Re­pub­lic­ans’ fa­vor­ite im­mig­ra­tion is­sue — bor­der se­cur­ity. It will not in­clude any con­crete pro­pos­al, they said. In­deed, the word­ing is likely to be in­ten­tion­ally squishy, giv­ing law­makers lots of room to man­euver.

“We can win in 2014 without resolv­ing it. We can’t win in 2016 without resolv­ing it,” said Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn.

But no mat­ter what hap­pens, Boehner will come out a win­ner just for the ef­fort. If it flops over hard­liners’ ob­jec­tions to any­thing that ap­proaches am­nesty for il­leg­al im­mig­rants, Boehner and Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign lead­ers look­ing for cash can still tell the busi­ness com­munity they tried. What’s more, it could lay the ground­work for a Re­pub­lic­an over­ture to His­pan­ic voters, a group every­one sees as crit­ic­al to win­ning in 2016.

“We can win in 2014 without resolv­ing it. We can’t win in 2016 without resolv­ing it,” said Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy, Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence Chair­wo­man Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, and im­mig­ra­tion-law ex­pert Bob Good­latte, chair­man of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, are writ­ing the prin­ciples with Boehner.

They in­tend to start vet­ting them with House Re­pub­lic­ans, likely next week after GOP lead­ers hold a meet­ing to prep for their con­fer­ence’s Jan. 29 re­treat. By the time the prin­ciples go pub­lic (or are leaked), lead­er­ship hopes to have more than half of the con­fer­ence on board.

Then, ac­cord­ing to aides, the plan is to gauge pub­lic re­ac­tion. If House mem­bers are de­luged with noth­ing but hate mail from their dis­tricts, Re­pub­lic­ans might de­cide to do noth­ing but em­phas­ize bor­der se­cur­ity, per­haps even vot­ing on the bor­der bill pro­duced last year. That’s at least un­til 2014 primary-elec­tion fil­ings are over. (The biggest threat to Re­pub­lic­ans on im­mig­ra­tion is in the primar­ies any­way, strategists say. No one will lose in the gen­er­al elec­tion be­cause they are too soft on im­mig­ra­tion.)

But if lead­er­ship’s prin­ciples re­ceive some pos­it­ive feed­back, Good­latte, Can­tor, and Rep. Dar­rell Issa, R-Cal­if., could ad­vance le­gis­la­tion they have dis­cussed for the last sev­er­al months. As yet, there is no le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage draf­ted, however. Can­tor and Good­latte have talked about a path to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented “dream­ers” who came to this coun­try as kids. Even Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., is dis­cuss­ing some sort of “Dream Act.” Issa is mulling broad­er leg­al­iz­a­tion for oth­er un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants. Rep. Mario Diaz-Bal­art, R-Fla., is try­ing to gath­er sup­port for a leg­al­iz­a­tion plan that would al­low un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to get green cards through nor­mal chan­nels, such as chil­dren or spouses.

“That’s at least five and maybe six or sev­en House Re­pub­lic­ans get­ting ready to in­tro­duce leg­al­iz­a­tion bills. House Re­pub­lic­ans com­pet­ing to write bills for what they once called am­nesty. I think that’s pretty dra­mat­ic, as I un­der­stand from the out­side,” said Im­mig­ra­tion­Works USA Pres­id­ent Tamar Jac­oby, a Re­pub­lic­an ad­voc­ate for im­mig­ra­tion re­form who is fa­mil­i­ar with the House strategy.

Jac­oby likens the “piece­meal” ap­proach to im­mig­ra­tion re­form to the sev­en courses of a Thanks­giv­ing din­ner — all the pieces add up to a vo­lu­min­ous whole. “Everything will get done fairly quickly over a few days or weeks,” she said. “In lead­er­ship’s con­cep­tion, the pieces ad­dress pretty much all the ma­jor is­sues.”

Can­tor told his caucus in a memo at the be­gin­ning of the year that im­mig­ra­tion could be one of the top­ics that make it to the House floor “over the next few months.”

The odds re­main low for the House to ad­vance le­gis­la­tion that might win lots of Demo­crat­ic sup­port, al­though some law­makers, such as Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez, D-Ill., will prob­ably ap­plaud the ef­fort and en­cour­age the ne­go­ti­ations to con­tin­ue. And House Re­pub­lic­ans will cer­tainly face op­pos­i­tion from con­ser­vat­ives like Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who dis­ap­prove of any ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion while Pres­id­ent Obama is in the White House.

What Boehner is hop­ing for, however, is that a ma­jor­ity of the GOP con­fer­ence — the middle-of-the-road folks who listen to their loc­al cham­bers of com­merce and sym­path­ize with the need to court Lati­nos — will have a dif­fer­ent view than King and oth­er hard­liners.

And if they do, they could win siz­able con­ces­sions from lib­er­als to change the im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem. They could dra­mat­ic­ally bol­ster bor­der and work­s­ite en­force­ment and rein in the cur­rent fam­ily-based “chain mi­gra­tion” sys­tem.

It would also be a huge win for Boehner. He could rightly state that he found a polit­ic­ally plaus­ible an­swer to the most dif­fi­cult pub­lic-policy ques­tion fa­cing Con­gress. He could dis­miss cri­ti­cisms that he is more bluster than sub­stance. And the pro­pos­al, whatever it is, would put con­ser­vat­ives in the driver’s seat in ne­go­ti­ations with the White House. It would be aw­fully hard for Pres­id­ent Obama to have an im­mig­ra­tion solu­tion in hand and re­ject it.

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