There was quite a bit of chatter yesterday about this exchange between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and a constituent with a question about immigration. At first blush, the congressman's comments seemed to give new hope to reform proponents.
For those who can't watch clips online, the constituent noted that House GOP leaders won't bring an immigration reform bill to the floor for a vote, even if a majority of House members support it, because of the made-up "Hastert Rule," which says the only bills that deserve a vote are the ones with the support of most Republicans, not most lawmakers.
Ryan, who's been more open than most in his party to immigration reform, responded with an answer that was open to interpretation. He told the voter, "It is not, 'they don't come to the floor unless we have a majority of the majority,' because we don't know if we have a majority until we vote on it."
That didn't make much sense, since House leaders presumably know whether they have a majority long before they vote on it. In fact, it made so little sense that it seemed as if Ryan was suggesting the Hastert Rule should be ignored -- bring the bill to the floor, let members have their say, and then we'll know what the majority thinks.
Jed Lewison argued, persuasively, that the Wisconsin Republican's comments weren't quite as encouraging as reformers hoped, and his instincts were right.
In fact, today, Ryan's spokesperson told Greg Sargent, "The House will consider only those immigration reforms that garner a majority of House Republicans."
So much for that idea.
Obviously, for those suddenly optimistic that Ryan might be an ally for reform efforts, this represents a setback. That said, Greg asks whether Paul Ryan, a national figure in his party and a man with higher ambitions, is prepared to "lead on the issue."
Ryan is in a very good position to do just that. He plainly wants a bill to pass and he is broadly respected as a leadership figure by conservatives in the caucus. If he wants to, he'll presumably be able to influence how the House handles a number of upcoming questions: Will the emerging House gang of seven bill -- which is to the right of the Senate bill but also includes citizenship -- ever get a full vote, even though it's comprehensive and not piecemeal? Will something that emerges out of conference get a vote, even if a majority of Republicans does not publicly support it? What about the Senate bill? If all else fails, will it be allowed to come to the floor without the backing of a majority of the majority?
If I were a betting man, I'd say Ryan won't play a constructive role, as his pointless fealty to the made-up Hastert Rule helps prove. If the far-right Wisconsite continues to have national aspirations, he's no doubt aware of the conservative backlash against Marco Rubio over immigration, and would likely want to avoid the same criticism.
For that matter, it's not clear whether Ryan would make much of a difference anyway. If he were to announce this afternoon that he loves comprehensive reform and thinks the bipartisan Senate compromise should come to the floor immediately, is there any reason to think other House Republicans would care? Ryan might sway a handful of GOP members, but it's not as if Boehner, Cantor, and the leadership team are inclined to take marching orders from him.
I can appreciate why reform proponents would leap at any new opportunity for success, and Ryan is admittedly less rigid on immigration than many others on the far right, but this fight really isn't up to him. It's frustrating, but the fate of immigration reform largely comes down to one person: House Speaker John Boehner. And as of now, he's too weak, cowed, and confused to do much of anything.