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Immigration Reform and the Lessons of ’06

Speaker of the House John Boehner boxed himself in on immigration reform, but an article in National Journal makes a compelling case that he has a plausible Plan B. His initial approach to immigration reform followed what has been called the “Boehner Rule”: have the Senate pass legislation first, so the House can avoid taking tough votes on legislation that will die in the Senate anyway (Nancy Pelosi’s decision to force the then-Democratic House to vote on cap-and-trade is a good example of what Boehner wants to avoid).

But as Boehner’s critics have noted, forcing the Senate to pass bills first removes some of his caucus’s influence on new legislation. And there is always the likelihood that anything that passes the Democratic-controlled Senate will be anathema to the Republican House–which is exactly what happened with immigration reform. The bill was crafted by a bipartisan “gang of eight” and produced a compromise bill that House conservatives greatly dislike.

After insisting the Senate go first, Boehner was left to explain why the Senate bill won’t even be considered by the House, and why it was necessary or preferable for the Senate to even pass a bill if it would have no influence on the legislation ultimately put together by House Republicans. It appeared that the “Boehner Rule” would damage the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform even more than the much-discussed Hastert Rule, intended in this case to prevent a bill being passed on the strength of the Democratic minority in the House.

To add to the frustration of reform proponents, Boehner announced no immigration bill would be finalized before the congressional recess, despite his earlier hopes a vote would be held before the break. But that, writes National Journal, is actually a strategy to pass, not bury, immigration reform:

Keeping immigration on the back-burner helps avoid a recess filled with angry town-hall meetings reminiscent of the heated August 2009 protests where the backlash against health care reform coalesced. Doing nothing also starves Democrats of a target, Republicans argue.

“August was a central part of our discussions. People don’t want to go home and get screamed at,” a House GOP leadership aide said.

According to this strategy, Boehner and the GOP will use the recess to focus voter anger on Obama administration scandals and the latest ObamaCare outrages. Rather than follow the Democrats’ precedent on ObamaCare and unleash public opposition to their own bill, Boehner wants to use the recess to reignite the anti-ObamaCare energy. But while Boehner uses ObamaCare as the template to avoid, there is actually another precedent that is even more relevant to this issue: the 2006 meetings held by congressional Republicans to oppose immigration reform during George W. Bush’s second term.

Bush supported efforts to reform the immigration system and his outreach to Hispanic immigrants enabled him to get more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 reelection campaign against John Kerry. In his book Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, Jason Riley quotes Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg as saying that the Democrats were taking the Hispanic vote for granted and Republicans were reaching out to those same voters. It appeared the GOP had solved the riddle:

“I thought the Republicans had probably passed the tipping point on this thing with Latinos,” says Rosenberg. “I thought the Democrats had been caught flat-footed, that Bush and Dowd had moved an unbelievably powerful strategic chess piece. Then the Republicans decided to hold those field hearings. I said, ‘I can’t believe they’re really going to do this.’ “

[…]

Republicans believed, with reason, that heavy turnout facilitated GOP gains in 2002 and 2004, and they were terrified that their base would stay home in November. Politicians are famous for their inability to see past the next election, and congressional Republicans in 2006 were no different. They covered their ears to warnings from Bush, Mehlman, and Rove that the strategy could backfire and spent the months leading up to the midterms desperately trying to demonize illegal aliens.

There were no doubt a number of factors that led to the GOP’s disastrous results in the 2006 midterms. But Boehner seems to understand that giving immigration opponents the space to rally the base would prove the GOP had unlearned at least some of the lessons from 2006.

In addition to trying to divert grassroots conservative attention away from immigration reform, Boehner also seems to be–intentionally or not–ceding that space to supporters of immigration reform. The Hill reports that “Business groups, tech companies and labor unions are bringing down the hammer on House Republicans over immigration reform.” These groups “worry the August recess could be their Waterloo, and are planning events, rallies and editorial board meetings to keep their legislative push alive.”

As veterans of the press or electoral politics know all too well, generally opponents of anything are far more energized and voluble than supporters of the same. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, the Chamber of Commerce mustering the kind outrage in support of immigration reform typified by opponents of ObamaCare or the earlier iteration of comprehensive immigration reform. Nonetheless, the GOP’s House leadership is convinced the delay is the only way to save immigration reform. Whether such a bill ultimately passes or not, avoiding a replay of the angry anti-immigration days of 2006 can at least prevent the right from doing even more damage to its standing among immigrant groups.