Commentary Magazine


Boehner’s Recess Gambit May Backfire

Because of the current division of power in Washington, the one group that goes mostly ignored in coverage of legislative fights is the House Democratic caucus. Republicans are in the minority in the Senate, but have enough seats to force bipartisan compromise for anything to pass. The GOP controls the House, which doesn’t have to ask the minority for permission to do much of anything–and besides, House Speaker John Boehner has consistently preferred the Senate go first on legislation.

This state of affairs is especially true on immigration, where we have heard endlessly about both parties’ Senate strategies and the House GOP’s competing approaches. But in fact the House Democrats seem to want immigration reform to pass, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reports on their latest strategic maneuvers to force a vote either on the Senate bill or a near-identical piece of legislation:

At the center of the internal debate is Nancy Pelosi and the question of whether Democrats will file a so-called “discharge petition” for the Senate immigration bill. If a discharge petition were signed by a majority in the House, the measure would get a full floor vote….

A House Democratic leadership aide tells me no decision has been made on whether to proceed with the petition. According to people familiar with the situation, it’s provoking opposition among some Dems on the House “gang of seven,” who fear it could give Republicans in the “gang” an excuse to walk away from an emerging compromise that may be the best hope for anything approaching a comprehensive bill in the House. Some Dems in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and some Dems in border districts also are cool to the idea, because they object to the Senate bill’s huge border security buildup. They would prefer to stake their chances on the possibility of a bipartisan House bill or on conference negotiations designed to reconcile the Senate bill with whatever the House passes.

The latter group of Democrats faces long odds, I would think. It will be a heavy lift for the House GOP leadership to get the Senate (or an identical) bill through, but the only chance of passing something like that out of the House is by placating conservatives’ desire to prioritize border security. Democrats who want to pass a version of the Senate bill without the border security measures are deluding themselves.

Additionally, there is no strategy that would be less of a surprise than the attempt to pass something out of the House and then reconcile the bills in conference. Conservatives expect that option to be on the table the whole time, which is why many are opposed to passing any large piece of legislation that could come out of conference negotiations having been pulled significantly to the left.

The truth is that the great hope for comprehensive immigration reform in the House that would include a path to citizenship for those already here has more to do with a later post from Sargent, in which he writes of the apparent lack of anti-“amnesty” outrage, thus far, at GOP town halls. I wrote about this last week, noting that the congressional recess period is going to give representatives a chance to take the temperature of their districts’ attitudes toward immigration reform. Much of this, however, comes down to interpretation. What if the recess goes quietly? At the Washington Examiner, Byron York and Conn Carroll give dueling analyses. Here’s York:

If August goes quietly on the immigration front, some Republican lawmakers may return to Washington with the sense that voters back home don’t really mind that immigration reform goes forward. And then it will.

Will it? Here’s Carroll:

If Republican town halls go smoothly this summer and Republicans do not feel any heat from their constituents on the issue, amnesty is all but guaranteed to die a slow death by irrelevance this fall.

This is a good example of why there’s so much concentration on reading tealeaves. Boehner’s strategy is predicated on the notion that an outpouring of public opposition in Republicans’ home districts over the summer recess will not only doom immigration reform but make Republicans look furiously anti-immigrant in the process. (This is exactly what happened last time, in 2006-2007.) So he has decided not to craft a bill, thinking that this will deprive opponents of a target.

He’s right about that. But the plan may be too clever by half: there is no real way to test public opinion without an actual bill. That means Republican members of the House may come back from recess having no idea what many of their constituents actually think about a piece of legislation that, after all, doesn’t exist yet. Those Republicans may be inclined to leave well enough alone, in which case Boehner’s attempt to save immigration reform will backfire.

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