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Boehner completes his 180-degree turn on immigration

For those eagerly watching comprehensive immigration reform work its way through Congress, it's difficult to know what to make of House Speaker John Boehner (R
Boehner completes his 180-degree turn on immigration
Boehner completes his 180-degree turn on immigration

For those eagerly watching comprehensive immigration reform work its way through Congress, it's difficult to know what to make of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Are his signals reliable? Does he have any authority? Is he bluffing? Does he have any strategy in mind at all?

The answers are more than just insider trivia. The fate of the entire initiative may very well rest in the Speaker's hands, and if we take his words at face value -- which may or may not be wise -- Boehner appears to be in the process of killing immigration reform.

The trajectory of his posturing sheds quite a bit of light on how Boehner is approaching the issue. As the process got underway, the Speaker endorsed "comprehensive" reform, vowed the House would "work its will" on whatever the Senate passed, and refused to rule out the possibility of passing reform by relying on Democratic votes.

That was then; this is now. Boehner now rejects the notion he wants a "comprehensive" bill, refuses to let the House even cast a vote on the bipartisan Senate legislation, has said categorically he'll only consider a bill most House Republicans support, and yesterday, seemed to drive a nail into immigration reform's coffin.

Speaker John A. Boehner told reporters Monday that border security will come before legalization."The American people expect that we'll have strong border security in place before we begin the process of legalizing and fixing our legal immigration system," the Ohio Republican said.

The secure-the-border-first position is popular with the GOP's far-right wing, but as best as I can tell, yesterday was the first time the House Speaker endorsed this line publicly. The argument is that Democrats should give Republicans what they want, at which point, the GOP will consider, maybe, if they feel like it, questions regarding citizenship status.

Oh, and when Boehner says this view has been endorsed by "the American people," he has no idea what he's talking about -- polls show strong national support for comprehensive reform, which the Speaker and his party appear eager to destroy.

What we're left with is a House Speaker who has completed a 180-degree turn on the biggest piece of legislation pending in this Congress. Does this mean it's over?

The problem with the question is that no one, not even Boehner himself, seems to know the answer. There isn't a soul involved in this process who knows whether to take the Speaker seriously, whether his rhetoric has any value or connection to his true intentions, or even whether he has any influence over the members he ostensibly leads. Indeed, Boehner has finished a wholesale reversal from the positions he took in the early spring, and it's certainly possible he may yet reverse himself again. It's anybody's guess.

Part of the fight may well come down to who Boehner is inclined to listen to most. On the one hand, reform proponents include a bipartisan Senate majority, private-sector employers, party strategists, deficit hawks, leaders from minority communities, and as we saw yesterday, religious leaders.

On the other, we see a whole lot of conservatives. Indeed, just this morning, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and National Review editor Rich Lowry -- two of the most influential Republican voices in media -- co-signed an editorial urging House Republicans to put "a stake through" immigration reform's "heart." As they see it, GOP lawmakers should do literally nothing on the issue -- no House alternative, no conference committee, no attempt at finding "common ground" -- and should instead shift its electoral intentions.

If Republicans take the Senate and hold the House in 2014, they will be in a much better position to pass a sensible immigration bill. At the presidential level in 2016, it would be better if Republicans won more Hispanic voters than they have in the past -- but it's most important that the party perform better among working-class and younger voters concerned about economic opportunity and upward mobility.

I've been harping on this a bit lately, but the Kristol/Lowry argument is predicated on the assumption that the party is not really facing a demographic challenge. Sure, Republicans are alienating every racial and ethnic minority group in an increasingly diverse nation, but so long as they "perform better" with white people, the GOP can remain competitive.

Six months ago, most prominent voices in the party saw this as ridiculous, and committed themselves to expanding the Republican base. Now, the forget-everyone-but-white-people strategy is starting to dominate party thought.