The mainstream media is still reeling from House Speaker John Boehner’s telling off Heritage Action and other right-wing groups that were attempting to obstruct Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget deal last month. Having pegged Boehner as a Tea Party hostage in the wake of the disastrous government shutdown that he failed to stop, the Speaker’s willingness to talk back to conservative activists has led to expectations that the Ryan budget won’t be the last instance in which the GOP establishment gives the back of its hand to the right.
Thus, Boehner’s hiring of Rebecca Talent, a longtime immigration adviser to John McCain is fueling expectations that 2014 will be the year when the Republican-controlled House will take up immigration reform after thwarting efforts to change the existing broken system. Yet while those predicting some action on immigration are not wrong, the glee on the left about an impending civil war on the right over this is premature. Though after the shutdown Boehner appears to have learned his lesson about letting the Tea Party caucus run the House asylum, expectations that he will do anything to bring about a major schism even over an issue as vital as immigration are more the product of liberal wishes than conservative strategy.
Contrary to the spin placed on the hiring of Tallent by the New York Times and other liberal outlets, this is not the first indication of Boehner’s willingness to push forward some kind of immigration legislation. Though he has never had any affection for the comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, Boehner has been signaling since last spring that what he wanted to do was to break down that omnibus bill and cherry pick parts of it that he thought could pass the House.
Will that be enough to satisfy immigration advocates or the not-inconsiderable number of conservatives who view a more rational approach to the issue as an indispensable element of a rebranding of the GOP in advance of the next presidential election? The answer is almost certainly no. But the speculation about Boehner’s intentions tell us more about the desire of the left for a Republican meltdown than about the actual prospects of a full scale confrontation on the issue on the right.
It is true that Boehner is fed up with Heritage Action and a host of other conservative activist groups that have lost sight of the need for Republicans to find a way to govern rather than engage in guerrilla warfare against the Obama administration and its pet projects. The failure of the shutdown and the juxtaposition of that foolish move with the obvious political benefits of sitting back and letting the Democrats deal with the negative fallout from the president’s ill-conceived health-care law has strengthened the Speaker’s hand against those who would like to maneuver him into a similar strategy on the debt ceiling. But there is a vast difference between the debate on the right about fiscal issues and the one it is having on immigration.
The differences between Tea Partiers and the so-called GOP establishment on the budget, spending, taxes, and even ObamaCare are tactical. If Boehner won’t let Heritage and the Tea Partiers shut down the government again or threaten a default it is not because he secretly likes ObamaCare or wants to enable liberal spending. It’s because he—and the vast majority of conservatives—understand that shutdowns are political mistakes. But on immigration, there is a genuine split among Republicans, especially on providing a path to citizenship for those who are already here illegally.
Count me among those who think the Senate bill was the right approach in many respects. The immigration system is broken and needs a complete overhaul that includes strengthening border security as well as dealing with the reality of approximately 12 million illegals, many of whom have been here for decades and are no threat to anyone.
But given the inability of the government to deal adequately with security issues as well as legitimate concerns about flouting the rule of law, it is an understandable if regrettable fact that what appears to be a majority of Republicans and conservatives oppose the comprehensive bill. A majority of House Republicans also doesn’t exist in support of anything that would provide a path to citizenship for illegals and anyone who thinks Boehner will choose to create a party schism on such an effort in 2014 and sabotage the GOP’s chances in November is almost certainly mistaken.
Republicans do need to change their tone on immigration, not so much because they stand a chance of making major inroads in the Hispanic vote but because some on the right have taken positions that smack of hostility to all immigrants and minorities, thus discrediting the party in the view of more than only those personally concerned.
Yet while Boehner won’t go all the way on immigration, he does have the votes to pass some elements of the reform package. One such measure is adoption of a DREAM Act type of law that will enable those who were brought here illegally as children to become citizens. Another is increasing visas for high-tech workers or dealing with the need to provide a way to fast-track the legalization of agricultural laborers. That won’t go as far as some Republicans want the party to go, let alone please Hispanic leaders or President Obama. But it is a start in the right direction that may provide a basis to deal with larger issues after the 2014 midterms.
But what Boehner won’t do is blow his party up on core immigration issues. Doing so won’t advance the cause of immigration reform but it will increase the Democrats’ chances of holding onto the Senate and making gains in the House. It is hardly surprising that liberals are hoping for just such an outcome, but that has more to do with their political agenda than any sober analysis of what the Speaker might do.