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Immigration: Boehner dances around as decision time nears

Few politicians would want to trade places with Speaker Boehner this week.
A group of migrants get ready to walk through the desert toward the U.S. border, near the city of Sasabe, Mexico. (Photo by Alexandre Meneghini/AP)
A group of migrants get ready to walk through the desert toward the U.S. border, near the city of Sasabe, Mexico.

Few politicians would want to trade places with Speaker Boehner this week. With bipartisan immigration reform nearing a final vote in the Senate, attention is turning to the GOP-led House to see if they'll follow suit with legislation of their own. And Boehner is doing his best not to give away his plan until he absolutely has to.

Boehner's decision will likely hinge on which group scares him more: conservatives or Latinos.

If Boehner decides reform must pass, he could call to the floor a Senate-style bill that includes new border security measures, an overhauled to the legal immigration system, a crackdown on illegal hiring, and a path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived here illegally. This idea gained some momentum on Tuesday when the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported the Senate bill would reduce the deficit by $197 billion over the next decade and another $700 billion in the decade after that. But this approach would likely alienate conservative members of the caucus, many of whom consider the Senate's citizenship provision an "amnesty" for rule-breakers that will only create more Democratic voters. Boehner would likely need Democrats to provide most of the votes to pass it.

If Boehner decides that his conservative wing can't handle another tough vote without a revolt, he could support a more right-leaning bill focused on border security and enforcement with no path to citizenship. That approach would have virtually zero chance of passing the Democratic Senate and would further poison the GOP's relationship with Latino voters. Not only that but Boehner would invite a backlash from businesses backing reform, which range from tech companies like Google and Microsoft hoping to recruit highly educated immigrants to agricultural interests who want guest workers to fill labor shortages.

Not surprisingly, Boehner isn't eager to come down hard on either side. On Tuesday, he offered the most detailed take yet on his plan, but even that left his options open, allowing him to adjust to the political climate.

In a nod to the conservative wing, he criticized the Senate bill as "weak on border security" and called its trigger provisions, which require enforcement measures take effect before newly legal immigrants can apply for green cards, "laughable." He also suggested that he wouldn't support a bill over the objections of his own members.

"I also suggested to our members today that any immigration reform bill that is going to go into law, should have the majority of both parties support if we're really serious about making that happen," Boehner told NBC News. "So I don't see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn't have the majority support of Republicans."

That sounds pretty clear-cut: either the GOP caucus is on board with a bill, or no deal. But there's more going on here. Any bill the House passes will have to go to conference in the Senate to reconcile their differences. And Boehner didn't rule out the idea that he might bring the resulting bill to the floor.

"We'll see when we get there," he told reporters, according to The Hill.

This could give Boehner the opportunity to start with a solidly conservative bill, give the right their say, then return to a compromise closer to the Senate version that might actually become law. And since the Senate bill's most conservative sponsor, Marco Rubio, has already insisted on stronger border provisions there should be plenty of room to then offer a concession or two. But reformers are concerned that if Boehner lets the anti-immigration genie out of the bottle, it will be impossible to put it back in.

House committee advancing strict enforcement bill

In particular, Democrats working on a bipartisan immigration bill are alarmed by what's going on in the House Judiciary Committee. There, Republican chairman Bob Goodlatte is advancing his SAFE Act, a hawkish enforcement-only bill that would criminalize the undocumented population and encourage state and local police to enforce immigration laws. House legislation with similar provisions produced huge protests from Latino groups in 2005-2006, as did Arizona's 2010 SB 1070 law that empowered police to demand proof of legal status from suspected undocumented immigrants. The latest bill also comes after the House voted last week to oppose President Obama's executive order halting deportations for young undocumented immigrants. It's an especially bitter turn for pro-reform Democrats like Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who has praised Goodlatte and other Judiciary Committee Republicans as promising partners for a deal.

"This bill puts in doubt that shared belief that we can come together and solve the problem of our broken immigration system together on a bipartisan basis," Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California said at a hearing Tuesday.

There may be another path forward. Gutierrez and Lofgren have spent months working on a bipartisan bill that would likely be structured closer to the Senate plan. If they can finish up their negotiations and release legislation soon, it could give Boehner a way to avoid the more alienating debate occurring in the vacuum. But even then, there's no guarantee Republicans will rally to its side. Sooner or later, Boehner will have to decide which group is more dangerous to ignore and make his final call.

Update, 06/19: Maybe Boehner is leaving less wiggle room than first thought. The National Review reports that an aide to the Speaker confirmed Boehner would not hold a vote on an immigration bill without majority Republican support under any circumstances, including if it originates from a conference deal with the Senate.