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Juan Williams: Pressure builds on Boehner

Lauren Schneiderman

If Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) put the Senate’s immigration bill to a vote in the House, it wins.

The math is pretty simple. It will take 218 votes to pass it. All 200 Democrats are on board as well as three Republican co-sponsors. Odds heavily favor getting 15 of the remaining 229 Republicans in the House to join the bandwagon. Fourteen of 45 Republicans in the Senate supported reform.

But none of that matters because Boehner refuses to put the bill to a vote.

That’s why Eliseo Medina is fasting in a small tent across from the Capitol.

“We want to touch Speaker Boehner’s heart,” Medina told me when I sat with him in the tent last Thursday night. He recently retired as the first Mexican American among top officials at the Service Employees International Union. Now the 67-year-old is putting his health at risk to inject new momentum into House action on immigration reform.

“The human level takes it to a different dimension,” he explained. “We want [Boehner] to know this is about more than politics. It is about families being broken up by deportation. It is about hard working people being told they are criminals. This creates pain and suffering in our community.”

Medina is an admired figure among Latinos for his early work with the legendary Cesar Chavez (who once fasted for 36 days for farm workers’ rights) as well as his trailblazing work with the SEIU. With three other activists he has been fasting in the little tent since Nov. 12. Twigs tied in the shape of the Christian cross hang from their necks.

“This is about doing the right thing, what is moral and right,” said Medina. “We want to touch the heart of America because the American people are generous and fair. If they know what is going on, they will raise their voices to convince Speaker Boehner that he has got to get this done.”

It all comes down to the conscience of one man: Boehner.

“He is stuck,” said Dae Joong Yoon, a prominent activist in the Korean-American community, who is fasting with Medina. “He has no idea what to do with 11 million people. He knows he can’t deport all of them. He can’t make this issue go away. He is really having a hard time.”

In the last few weeks, Boehner has become the main target for activists supporting reform. There have been protests in front of his home on Capitol Hill calling for him to put the bill to a vote. At his favorite breakfast diner, he has had dawn lectures from young people who have grown up in the United States, love the nation and consider it their country, but have no way to become citizens.

The activists remind Boehner of the growing Latino vote in even the whitest southern congressional districts. The GOP needs them to win statewide and national elections.

“If Boehner kills off immigration reform, he’s going to go down as the Speaker who helped kill off the GOP,” Frank Sharry, director of a Washington, DC immigration reform group, America’s Voice, said in a recent interview.

Vice President Biden is also pointing at Boehner: “He will not allow the House to play by fair play – the American way, to let the Congress actually vote their conscience to fix a broken system,” he has said.

“I’ve talked to Speaker Boehner and he’s totally committed to this,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican proponent of reform said last week. “But he needs to find a way to get enough of the support [from his members].”

The GOP opposition is ignoring public opinion polls calling for immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. They fear bringing immigration reform to the floor will anger the GOP’s hard-right wing. That will lead to primary challenges for Republican members. It might also prompt Republicans to replace Boehner with a new leader.

The opposition’s fears can be seen in criticism directed at Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for his support of having votes on “seven or eight different pieces of legislation” to achieve reform. “He keeps talking about future labor shortages in the country, which I find uproariously funny,” said conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham.

Meanwhile, the fast in the tent is attracting support and pressure is growing on the Speaker.

Biden visited the fasting site on Friday. He prayed with the protestors. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited earlier. She, too, prayed with them. Cecilia Munoz, the White House domestic policy advisor, has come into the tent as well as Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson have also visited.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) sent a letter to every member of Congress to join a one-day fast on Dec. 3. She joined the fast for a day last week. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) also fasted for a day. California Republican congressmen David Valadao and Jeff Denham have come to the tent.

“By fasting we want to show how important it is to act now,” said Medina. “We want to create urgency. What is happening is against the values of this country. We are a nation of immigrants.”

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.