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Looking for ways around immigration's 'cruel math'

There's ample evidence that Republican Party leaders realize it's in the GOP's interest to approve comprehensive immigration reform. But House Republican
Looking for ways around immigration's 'cruel math'
Looking for ways around immigration's 'cruel math'

There's ample evidence that Republican Party leaders realize it's in the GOP's interest to approve comprehensive immigration reform. But House Republican lawmakers look at this as individuals with short-term interests, not party members concerned with long-term demographic challenges.

And with this in mind, the notion that comprehensive immigration reform will pick up the support of most House Republicans -- a minimum threshold that must be met, according to GOP leaders, before there's even a vote -- is increasingly hard to imagine.

District by district across the country, there are few House Republicans who have a strong political incentive to support the Senate bill.An analysis by The Wall Street Journal showed that only 38 of the House's 234 Republicans, or 16%, represent districts in which Latinos account for 20% or more of the population.

Paul Waldman described this as the "cruel math of immigration reform in the House." If comprehensive immigration reform needs the support of at least 117 House Republicans - half the 234-member caucus -- before the bill could even be considered, and only 38 House GOP members can personally be persuaded by demographic data from their home districts, then the arithmetic points in a very discouraging direction.

Unless, that is, the House can pass immigration reform with those 38 House Republicans, give or take a few.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) reiterated over the weekend, that they won't even allow a vote on the bill unless most Republicans endorse it. The "cruel math" suggests that's almost certainly impossible -- this is a far-right House GOP caucus representing far-right constituents who oppose reform. Barring a dramatic shift, the votes will not materialize.

But there's another way, which I talked up on Friday: a discharge petition.

To briefly recap, generally the only bills that reach the House floor for a vote are the ones House leaders support (or at least tolerate). But if 218 members -- regardless of party -- sign a discharge petition, their preferred legislation is brought up for a vote whether the majority party's leadership likes it or not.

In the case of immigration reform, there are 201 Democrats in the House caucus. If literally all of them are prepared to support the bipartisan Senate bill, they would need 17 House Republicans -- just 7% of the 231 GOP House members -- to join them on the discharge petition. If, say, 10 conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats from Southern states balked, they would need 27 Republicans to break party ranks.

How realistic is this scenario? At least on paper, it's not that far-fetched -- there are, according to the Wall Street Journal piece quoted above, 38 House Republicans whose districts have a significant number of Latino voters. What's more, according to National Review, there are as many as 40 House Republicans who consider themselves moderates, unhappy with their party's far-right direction. We can assume there's a fair amount of overlap between these two groups, but either way, the point is the same: if reform proponents need 20 or so House GOP members who'd like to see immigration reform pass, they exist.

So what's the trouble? Kevin Drum said last week that the problem with my argument is that it "actually makes sense." (This is, incidentally, my favorite criticism ever.) So let's dig in to the various areas of concern.

* GOP leaders will tell their members not to sign the discharge petition. That may be true, but if Boehner and Cantor actually want reform to pass, and I suspect they do, they're unlikely to press members very hard. In fact, just the opposite might happen -- Republican leaders can quietly tell 20 of their members that it's fine with the Speaker's office if they sign the discharge petition and they won't be punished later.

* Members will be afraid to sign the discharge petition fearing intra-party repercussions. It's true that signing a discharge petition would be a fairly bold move, but if you're a moderate in this caucus, your career prospects are limited anyway. Besides, if their colleagues flipped out, these members could go back to their districts and use this as an example of how they're beholden to no one in Washington.

* The number of GOP moderates has been greatly exaggerated and the votes don't exist. This may be true, and I can't prove otherwise. But there are reportedly 40 members of the so-called Tuesday Group, but if that's been exaggerated and there really only 30, that's still enough.

* If reform passes, Republicans will want credit. Brian Beutler made this argument the other day, but I'm not convinced it's a problem. Last week, 70% of Senate Republicans voted against reform and the RNC took credit anyway. If the House passes the bill with Republican votes, the RNC would do the same thing, even if most of the party rejects it. Besides, if most party leaders want to get the issue off the table, credit may not matter that much.

I'm not making a prediction, per se. In other words, I'm not saying immigration reform will pass because there will be a successful discharge petition. Rather, I'm saying immigration reform will die at House GOP hands on its current trajectory and proponents will probably need an alternative strategy. The discharge petition strikes me as the most plausible of the available options.