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An immigration debate, stuck at the crossroads

Speaker Boehner's willingness to publicly mock his own ostensible allies may well mark a turning point in the debate.
Immigrant rights activists demonstrate during a 'National Day of Action' on April 10, 2014 in New York City.
Immigrant rights activists demonstrate during a 'National Day of Action' on April 10, 2014 in New York City.
Yesterday afternoon, 22 Senate Republicans -- roughly half the caucus -- wrote an impassioned letter to President Obama, pleading with him not to use executive-branch powers to ease deportations of undocumented immigrants. "Our entire constitutional system is threatened when the executive branch suspends the law at its whim and our nation's sovereignty is imperiled when the commander-in-chief refuses to defend the integrity of its borders," they argued.
Nora Caplan-Bricker noted that the letter "is full of language that sounds like a Fox News segment, warning darkly that the president lacks the authority to 'nullify' acts of Congress and must 'faithfully execute' the laws."
And while the letter wasn't explicit on this point, there was an important subtext to the message: the GOP's preferred policy outcome right now is ... nothing. The White House is considering unilateral action because Congress hasn't budged, which has left Republicans to effectively argue, "We won't act to improve the system and we demand that you not act to improve it, either."
Presumably, everyone involved in the debate is supposed to simply accept gridlock, inaction, and government paralysis as the new normal.
But around the time the 22 GOP senators were writing to the president, the nation's top Republican lawmaker was unexpectedly mocking his own party -- in public and on purpose -- over their reluctance to govern on this issue.

House Speaker John Boehner mocked his Republican colleagues on Thursday for not taking up immigration reform, according The Cincinnati Enquirer. "Here's the attitude. Ohhhh. Don't make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard," Boehner was quoted as saying, speaking at a lunch event in his Ohio district.... "We get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems, and it's remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don't want to," he added, speaking with unusual frankness about his own party. "They'll take the path of least resistance."

To fully appreciate the Speaker's sentiment, you'll really need to hear the mocking tone of voice he used when chiding his own ostensible allies. He made them out to be hapless whiners.
Whether or not you see a viable path for immigration reform this year, Boehner's willingness to publicly ridicule Republicans opposed to immigration reform is pretty important.
For one thing, Boehner has completely destroyed his own talking points on the principal obstacle standing in the way of reform. Greg Sargent explained this morning:

He has now effectively admitted that the real obstacle to solving the immigration problem is House Republicans. This runs counter to the endlessly repeated claim that House Republicans won't act only because they can't trust Obama. [...] Boehner has laid bare the real crux of the issue here, undoing in one stroke what months and months of spin from Republicans was designed to obscure. Boehner has repeatedly said Republicans won't act because Obama's refusal to enforce the law proves he can't be trusted to honor his end of any immigration compromise.

At the same time, any simmering tensions between the GOP leadership and the party's right-wing base, which boiled over after last fall's government shutdown but which have been cooled since, appear likely to heat up all over again. Heritage Action has already condemned the Speaker's comments and it seems like a safe bet that plenty of anti-immigration Republicans, on Capitol Hill and off, will soon do the same.
As for the near future, the fact that Boehner was mocking his own members in public suggests that the Speaker is so confident in his political standing that he's willing to take risks, or he's planning to step down and is starting to feel liberated.
Either way, for those focused on reform solutions, Boehner's comments appear to leave the door open, if only a crack. Look again at what he said: "We get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems, and it's remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don't want to." It's within the Speaker's power to bring a popular, bipartisan bill to the floor, challenging House members to "make choices" and "solve problems." Will he? Or will he reverse course today, denounce his own comments, and revert to norm?
Postscript: Before there are any suggestions to the contrary, let's be clear that Boehner's mockery was directed specifically at House Republicans. His spokesperson said overnight, "As the speaker often says to his colleagues, you only tease the ones you love."