In the last couple of days, Washington has been abuzz with speculation that Speaker John Boehner will retire in 2014.
It’s an important question, because Boehner is currently the greatest single obstacle to immigration reform passing immediately. Between the 200 House Democrats and 25 House Republicans who support citizenship, there are enough votes to pass immigration through the House and reconcile the legislation with the Senate bill that was passed in June. The only reason that hasn’t happened yet is because Boehner is insisting on blocking a vote unless a majority of his caucus supports it.
The funny thing about whether or not Boehner retires is that either way, his best interest is to pass immigration reform. If he does retire, he’s going to want a legacy, and by far the thing that the House has been known for under his watch is obstruction. And if he doesn’t retire, perhaps the best way for him to keep his seat is to show that he’s capable of getting something done.
As Ryan Grim and Jon Ward at the Huffington Post noted, “Sources also universally agreed that the one thing that would keep him in place through 2016, if he could somehow manage to win, is the possibility of locking in a grand bargain that cuts entitlement programs and spending generally.”
What would be a natural plank for such a grand bargain? Immigration reform. Ezra Klein has more:
That deal could be immigration reform. It could be a grand bargain. Either way, Boehner’s legacy is in Boehner’s power to secure. The coming fiscal crack-up — in which Congress will have to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling and manage (or replace) sequestration all at the same time — would seem to provide a perfect opportunity.
The reason that deal won’t happen — at least not in a “grand bargain” way — is that the two sides really, honestly, seriously disagree about what constitutes a good deal, and they’re still bitter over the failures of past deals.
Team Boehner still views the offer they made to President Obama after the fiscal cliff — $1 trillion in taxes the administration wanted for $1 trillion in cuts both sides could agree to — as more than fair, and the White House’s rejection of that offer as inexplicable. The White House, of course, disagreed, and the end result was $600 billion in taxes alongside $1 trillion in sequestration cuts that both sides hate. So in addition to honest disagreements over fiscal issues, there’s also a lot of resentment, and a lot of past positions neither side intends to back down from.
All of which would suggest that the right place for Boehner to make a deal is immigration reform. While Boehner really does think the White House deals on the budget in bad faith and wants too much in taxes, he doesn’t personally find the Senate’s immigration compromise to be noxious policy. And the votes really are there for it, or something like it, if Boehner chose to lift the Hastert rule.
Moreover, cutting a deal on immigration would do less harm to Boehner’s long-term prospects inside the Republican Party. While a deal that raised taxes would be seen as a genuine betrayal, much of Republican Washington — and Boehner will almost certainly become part of Republican Washington after he retires — would applaud a deal on immigration, seeing it as nothing less than a key step towards saving the future of their party. Boehner could retire as a hero rather than as a heretic or a failure.
Keep in mind that Boehner doesn’t have to lift a finger to whip the votes for reform. The support is already there. All he has to do is allow a vote. Boehner can save his Party, and himself. Or he can be remembered as the Speaker who killed immigration reform and consequently made his Party unelectable on the national stage.