By Juan Williams - 02/17/14 06:00 AM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Ky.) are now in position to end the Tea Party’s death grip on the Republican Party’s political future.
Last week, Boehner and McConnell faced down the Tea Party’s threat to cripple the government when they supported raising the nation’s debt ceiling. That move prevented GOP political suicide.
If the nation’s credit rating, stocks and the recovery went down the sewer because of Republicans’ refusal to raise the debt ceiling, the GOP’s chances in the midterm elections would have been severely damaged.
Having successfully defied the Tea Party on the debt ceiling, now it is time for Boehner and McConnell to use that momentum to pass three bills: An extension of unemployment benefits for people suffering long-term joblessness; a minimum wage hike; and, most important of all, immigration reform.
The Tea Party caucus in the House and the Tea Party star in the Senate – Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — are never going to love Boehner or McConnell. Both Congressional leaders have tried for years to accommodate Tea Party passions but they can never do enough.
By standing up to the Tea Party now, the GOP congressional leadership can create a legacy. They may suffer attacks from right-wing talk radio. But they will go into history as the team that made it possible for future Republicans to win elections with the support of some working class and Hispanic voters.
By increasing the minimum wage, which is favored in polls by a majority of Republicans and Democrats, as well as extending unemployment insurance, the GOP can avoid the trap of being labeled as the party of the rich. Indifference to the people hit hardest by the recession is a major political vulnerability for the party as income inequality becomes a dominant political theme.
The Tea Party’s refusal to negotiate, much less compromise, with Democrats has led to historic gridlock in Congress and hurt the nation’s ability to govern itself. Nothing is being done in Congress to spur economic growth or help the nation address critical needs regarding tax reform, improving our schools and dealing with immigration reform.
The last two months have seen small steps by Republican leaders to get the Congress back to work. First the budget deal, then the Farm Bill, and now raising the debt ceiling. With no help from the GOP, President Obama issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers last week. Obama’s healthcare plan is now showing better enrollment numbers, too.
A deal on immigration — which also has support in polls from a majority of Republicans — is the next step for Boehner and McConnell to show that their party is able to do more than obstruct the nation’s progress.
Boehner is ready to move on immigration. He issued a list of principles for immigration reform before a Tea Party caucus rebellion made him quit. He then tried to blame the situation on a lack of trust in Obama to “enforce our laws.” That was a weak excuse. The president has deported nearly 2 million undocumented workers since taking office, angering his own political base in the process.
Frank Sharry, executive director of immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, told me in an interview last week that activists will be putting pressure on the president to use his executive powers to stop deportations. The White House, meanwhile, is pushing the activists to maintain pressure on Congress.
“We’re still trying to keep the focus on legislative action,” insists Sharry, who believes there are between 50 and 60 Republicans in the House ready and willing to defy the Tea Party caucus and support a discharge petition to move immigration reform to a vote on the House floor.
Together with votes from Democrats, that would allow House passage of the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate in July. The dynamic would be along the same lines as last week’s vote on raising the debt ceiling.
With support from Boehner, this effort to move beyond Tea Party paralysis on immigration becomes a winner for Republicans. At the moment, all they can do is complain if Obama issues an executive order. Meanwhile, immigration activists, including Sharry, continue to press Obama to act on his own.
In June 2012, the president halted deportations of children of undocumented workers who qualify for citizenship under the Dream Act, as people brought here at a young age who are in school or the military. The Dream Act is another piece of legislation block by the Tea Party caucus.
Immigration activists want the president to unilaterally end deportations of parents of citizens. Next, they want him to stop deporting people who have not committed crimes. Finally, they want him to stop deporting anyone who qualifies for citizenship under the Senate immigration bill, which the President has said he supports.
The nation, including the Republican-leaning business community, wants a rational immigration system to bring in needed workers, especially talented people. Americans also want to do something about the more than 11 million people living here illegally.
Unless Boehner and McConnell stand up to the Tea Party now, the GOP will forever alienate Hispanic voters and limit the party’s chances in future elections. It is time for them to end the infighting that is hurting their party and the nation.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.