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The “Difficult” Choice Facing House GOP Leaders on Immigration? Actually, It’s a Pretty Simple One

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Conventional Wisdom is Crumbling, Excuses are Falling Away,

and It All Comes Down to Boehner

Conventional wisdom states that House Republican leadership has an intractable problem on its hands regarding immigration – an unruly anti-reform caucus that is resistant to sensible reform because its members fear primary challengers, worry about Tea Party opposition and think their bleached districts insulate them from Latino backlash.

Actually, none of this is much true.  To wit:

  • Anti-Reform Rally in Washington Fizzles: A rally in Washington organized by Tanton Network nativists this week demonstrated that the grassroots opposition to immigration reform isn’t nearly as powerful as conventional wisdom holds.  As Michelle Cottle noted in the Daily Beast, “As protests go, Monday’s anti-immigration march on the Capitol wasn’t exactly a blockbuster,” while assessing that the protesters were “a mere blip by D.C. standards.”  Regarding their allies inside the Capitol, Joshua Culling of Americans for Tax Reform told Molly Ball of The Atlantic that the hardliners in the House caucus appears to consist of “Steve King and his four friends,” and noted, in Ball’s words, that “they’re not getting as much traction as they used to.”
  • The Fear About Primary Challengers from the Right is Overblown: John Stanton of Buzzfeed writes an important new analysis titled, “No, Congressman, You Probably Won’t Lose Your Job For Voting For Immigration Reform.”  He concludes, “interviews with operatives, campaign aides, and activists from groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, as well as a review of recent election data, suggests the likelihood of Republicans facing serious primary challenges is not only overstated but probably won’t have much of anything to do with immigration.”  The fact is that most GOP primary challenges become serious when backed by the Club for Growth.  Stanton asked them about immigration and here’s what he hears: “’We don’t care about immigration reform,’ said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller with a chuckle, explaining his organization remains solely focused on ‘economic issues … [and] pro-growth policies.’”

With the conventional wisdom regarding the opposition to reform overstated, if not entirely wrong, it’s worth remembering the true dynamics and opportunities at hand for the House:

  • Immigration – a “Battle for the Soul of the GOP:” The article from Molly Ball of The Atlantic, titled, “The Immigration Fight Is the Battle for the Soul of the GOP,” quotes an array of Republican strategists.  John Feehery, a former top Republican congressional leadership aide, said, “This is the fight for the soul of the party,” and referred to the Steve King caucus as “haters” and, in Ball’s retelling, “heirs to the Know-Nothings who tried to keep out his Irish ancestors.”  Republican strategist John Weaver summed it up succinctly, noting, “We will not be a national governing party for a long, long time if we turn our backs on this chance to pass immigration reform.  It’s just that simple.”  Steve Schmidt, a former campaign strategist for George W. Bush and John McCain, placed the burden on Republican leadership, saying, “We have a fundamental deficit of leadership among political leaders when it comes to standing up to the ideological, radical voices who claim to speak in the name of conservatism.”
  • Republicans Can’t Rely on Cosmetic Measures or Hide from Latino Voters: During his interviews with Spanish-language media outlets yesterday, President Obama made an important declaration regarding the road ahead for reform.  The President noted that we need to pass comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, reform, reiterated that a pathway to citizenship, “needs to be a part of the bill,” and criticized the idea of offering legalization that stops short of a path citizenship because, “that’s not who we are as Americans.”

    The President’s comments come at a key time, as leading House Republicans are putting out feelers on behalf of potential cosmetic and half-loaf measures – Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC and the Chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee) made comments earlier this week designed to embrace the status quo on policy while deflecting political blame, while new remarks from Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) seem to favor a piecemeal approach that would advance their version of the DREAM Act while likely ignoring most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America.  Could this work?  Not if it’s up to Spanish language media.

    According to its most influential voice, Univisión anchor Jorge Ramos, if reform fails the Latino community and Spanish language media will blame Speaker Boehner and his Republican House colleagues.  In a piece for Univisión.com entitled, “How to lose the White House in 2016,” Ramos says, “Republicans have an opportunity in 2016 to share credit with Democrats on immigration reform, leaving behind years of ill-will.  Sixteen million Latino voters will decide that election.  But if after everything Republicans side with the most extremist anti-immigrants, they’ll lose the White House in 2016 and will have to wait many years to earn the forgiveness of Latinos.”  For good measure, he adds, “Does Boehner really want to be the new villain of the Hispanic community, replacing Sheriff Joe Arpaio?  Does he really want to be part of the sad anti-immigrant contingent including Pete Wilson, Tom Tancredo, Jan Brewer and Ted Cruz?  We’ll see.” (Translation by Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos).

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

Only in today’s Washington would legislation that grows the economy, reduces the debt, curtails illegal immigration, helps the GOP politically and enjoys public approval in the 80% range be seen as a problem for the House Republican caucus.  With every flimsy excuse crumbling, it comes down to John Boehner.  Actually his choice is pretty simple: a bipartisan majority for reform with a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America exists right now; he should find a way to have that majority express its will.