By Niall Stanage - 12/13/13 06:00 AM EST
Both sides in the immigration debate are watching Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) closely after Thursday evening’s emphatic House vote in favor of a bipartisan budget deal.
The calculus is clear in the minds of immigration reform advocates.
That Boehner’s budget victory came as he took on the outside conservative groups that have hampered his ability to lead his conference is an added plus.
“Boehner’s power in the conference is going to be improved,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of the pro-reform, business-oriented ImmigrationWorks USA, in advance of the 332-94 House vote. “Anything that gives him more juice is a good thing.”
Meanwhile, some of the conservative groups that are now at loggerheads with Boehner worry that the deal-making approach he has adopted on the budget will seep into other issues, including immigration.
Dan Holler, communications director of Heritage Action for America, expressed consternation that the speaker “was sending the signal to conservatives that they don’t have a role to play in the Republican House. That has a really big impact on what policy looks like” on issues including immigration, the debt ceiling and even gun control, he said.
On immigration, Holler warned that any deal including a pathway to citizenship would have grave consequences for the GOP’s capacity to energize its grassroots supporters.
“There have been signals from high-ranking Republicans for some time that they were going to ‘address immigration’ in 2014. When they say that, it is typically code for some sort to amnesty,” Holler said. “That is a major concern, not just for policy reasons, but because you can’t afford that, heading into a midterm election when you need your base to turn out.”
Holler’s organization was among those in Boehner’s crosshairs in recent days, along with ideological bedfellows such as FreedomWorks, which has close links to the Tea Party, and the Club for Growth, which focuses almost exclusively on fiscal issues.
Boehner said on Thursday, without naming any organization, that such groups had “lost all credibility.” Asked whether he was in effect suggesting they should stand down, Boehner responded, “I don’t care what they do.”
That kind of rhetoric drew complaints of “ad hominem attacks” from Holler.
FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe told The Hill that Boehner’s anger was “misplaced” but acknowledged that “the fight that has been going on for the soul of the House Republican caucus behind the scenes just got very public.”
Boehner’s words, and the alarm bells they sounded with conservative groups, came as music to the ears of left-leaning immigration reform advocates like Kica Matos of the Center for Community Change.
Referring to Heritage and other organizations on the right, she said, “these are groups that have traditionally and historically been rabidly opposed to immigration reform.”
Matos also noted that her optimism would not be so pronounced if Boehner’s offensive against outside groups was “an isolated incident.” She said that other developments, including his recent hiring of Rebecca Tallent, telegraphed his intentions on immigration reform. Tallent once worked as chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and was integral to his efforts to pass immigration reform in 2006 and 2007.
The picture is not a simple one, however. Kibbe, of FreedomWorks, argued that the budget deal did not necessarily change the outlook for immigration reform.
“It is probably a different calculus because the split in the Republican caucus on spending is between the old bulls who miss earmarks, and the budget balancers. I’m not sure it is going to have an impact on immigration.”
Still, both immigration and the budget are components of a larger struggle within conservatism.
On one side are those who urge some level of compromise to increase the chances of electoral success. On the other are those who assert that cleaving close to the most conservative of principles is the correct course.
Speaking near the end of the House debate on the budget plan, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told his colleagues that “to really do what we think needs to be done, we’re going to have to win some elections.”
Republicans who favor immigration reform have long formulated their appeals along similar lines.
Six months ago, as the Senate considered an immigration bill, Karl Rove wrote in his Wall Street Journal column that “immigration reform is now a gateway issue: Many Hispanics won’t be open to Republicans until it is resolved.”
But even advocates of reform argue that it would be foolish to count the right out yet, on immigration or anything else.
Referring to Republican members who might be open to backing immigration reform but unsure about crossing the Rubicon, Jacoby said, “I think the fear is being primaried, creating a vulnerability.”
She added, “I mean, for Heritage and some of the others, immigration is one of many things. Is it their top thing? No. But the fear has been that, if you voted for it, they would use it to back a challenger.
“I don’t think that has changed.”