By Russell Berman - 05/19/14 06:00 AM EDT
It’s up to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Republican and Democratic advocates see one final, long-shot chance to pass immigration reform this summer, and its fate rests with a Speaker stuck between his party’s resistance and his search for a career-defining legacy.
Boehner clearly wants to overhaul the immigration system, but to revive the issue, he will have to untangle knots he tied during the past year.
First, he ruled out the Senate’s “comprehensive” bill and said no House bill would get a vote absent support from a majority of Republicans. Then he announced that instead of a single, wide-ranging bill, the House would take a “step-by-step” approach, with reform embodied in several separate bills that could not be reconciled with the Senate proposal.
Yet these practical or procedural hurdles may not be Boehner’s biggest challenge. The highest bar to clear may be an issue of trust, specifically trust of President Obama.
Since February, the Speaker has said legislation cannot proceed until Republicans can trust the administration to enforce any new laws Congress passes.
It is a seemingly impossible standard for a president reviled by a majority of Republican lawmakers. Even stalwart advocates of immigration reform see scant chance of Obama meeting it.
“Nobody trusts the president, and that’s just the reality,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), a Republican who has written a bill that beefs up border security and offers a path to legal status for illegal immigrants. “Can the president re-establish his credibility in the next two months with the House, with the American people or with our allies? No. I think he can hopefully not make it worse.”
Boehner has not said how Obama could restore trust among Republicans who have watched angrily as he has repeatedly delayed parts of the healthcare law without congressional approval. Aides say, however, that he could begin by working with GOP members on some of their other priorities, such as the Skills Act, which the House passed to overhaul federal job-training programs.
A House GOP leadership aide said Obama could also help his cause by publicly ruling out unilateral action to halt deportations and by promising to enforce any new immigration law fully in the way Congress intended.
“Would it be helpful? Yes. Will it be enough? No,” Diaz-Balart said.
Diaz-Balart’s solution to the dilemma is to write legislation that would “hold the administration accountable” so it cannot ignore requirements to enforce border security. He would not give specifics, but his provisions would probably include a trigger based on a proposal agreed to last year that would revoke legal status for immigrants after five years if an employer E-Verify program were not in place.
Despite his emphasis on trust, Boehner has sent mixed signals that have confused supporters and foes about his intentions. He reportedly told a group of donors he was “hell-bent” on passing a law this year, mocked Republicans for their resistance, and then assured his House colleagues there is no “secret conspiracy” to ram an overhaul through.
Further confusion was engendered last week when White House aide and Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett was quoted as telling a forum in Las Vegas on Thursday that, on reform, “We have a commitment from Speaker Boehner, who’s very frustrated with his caucus.”
The following day, Jarrett distanced herself from the report, via Twitter. “I said Boehner has made [a] commitment to trying not that he has made [a] commitment to us or [to a] time frame,” she tweeted.
But, while Boehner has continued to leave open the possibility of immigration votes this year, his colleague, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), has been more sharply critical of Obama. This stokes doubt that Cantor would back a reform push before the midterm elections.
Although he has talked about offering citizenship to illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, Cantor issued a blistering statement after an April phone call about immigration with the president. He has also criticized Obama’s credibility and his “all-or-nothing” approach to reform. Cantor faces a primary challenge in June and denounced what he called the Senate “amnesty bill” in a speech last week.
“We are unlikely to make progress on immigration reform if we cannot restore trust between the White House, Congress, and the American people,” Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said. “Frankly, the president’s all-or-nothing approach makes it difficult to get anything done.”
Democrats dismiss Boehner’s complaint about trust, saying it is an excuse adopted to camouflage his fear of a conservative revolt among his rank and file.
“It is time for the House Republican leadership to decide whether they stand with the majority of the American people, and supposedly the majority of their conference, or if they’re really going to let [Rep.] Steve King dictate the policy of the Republican party on immigration,” an architect of the Senate immigration bill, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), said in a floor speech last week, referring to the Iowa conservative who opposes any new immigration legislation. “This is what Steve King wants. He wants the House to do nothing. He is winning, and America is losing.”
Obama said last week that Republicans have “two to three months” to take action. It is widely believed that if the House takes no action, the president, under pressure from liberal activists, will issue an executive order in August to slow or halt deportations of illegal immigrants.
Conservative supporters of an overhaul believe action is possible in June and July, after most Republican primaries have ended. With the GOP losing ground among Hispanic voters in swing states, these Republicans see getting reform passed this year as essential if the party hopes to win the White House in 2016.
Republican senators tell The Hill they will push a conservative reform solution if the GOP wins the Senate in November, but Schumer says the issue would by then be dead until after the presidential election.
Which brings the question back to Boehner.
He appeared to be pondering his mortality last week when he said in San Antonio that he could not guarantee he would stick around for another two-year term.
After failing to seal a “grand bargain” with Obama on cutting the federal deficit, Boehner may see immigration as his opportunity for an achievement that would define his tenure in office.