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Immigration Turbulence Buffets Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio gestures while speaking during a Feb. 6 news conference on Capitol Hill.
J. Scott Applewhite
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio gestures while speaking during a Feb. 6 news conference on Capitol Hill.

Will the real John Boehner please stand up?

Just a dozen days ago, Speaker Boehner and his GOP leadership team embraced a set of principles for updating the nation's immigration laws.

In that moment, the House seemed about to acknowledge the most pressing issue before the Congress – the elephant in the room, if you will. But then, last week, the Ohio Republican who presides over the House majority went public with grave doubts about the feasibility of that overhaul.

Why the whiplash? Boehner said a thorough-going revamp could not be done because House Republicans did not trust President Obama to carry it out once enacted. That could be a reason not to pass any legislation of any kind on any subject, of course, but Boehner seemed to lack an alternative explanation. He did not want to say that the wind had shifted after just one week.

The truth is, the wind had shifted; and it had taken only a weekend. Within hours of leadership bringing forth its principles on Jan. 30, they were being denounced by conservative activists, bloggers and radio talk shows. The central objection: the idea that those now in the country illegally should have a path, albeit a difficult one, to legal status.

To be clear, this was not a path to citizenship, with full rights and voting privileges. This was a path to not being arrested and deported. But that notion was immediately labeled amnesty for lawbreakers. And if there is one thing we've learned from every effort toward immigration reform since 1986, once the amnesty charge sticks the bill is dead. This time, the amnesty charge appears to have been fatal before the bill was even a bill.

It can surely be argued that the terms of the Jan. 30 principles had little in common with the 1986 legislation, which did mean amnesty for millions. But Boehner did not make that argument. He scarcely mounted a defense at all.

So will the real John Boehner stand up? Probably not. He's just had his legs cut out from under him.

Democrats immediately seized the moment as proof Boehner never really intended to press ahead on immigration this year. New York Democrat Charles Schumer, one of the authors of the 2013 deal by which the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration overhaul, saw Boehner's "can't trust Obama" riff as a bluff. Fine, Schumer said, pass the law and make it effective on Jan. 20, 2017, the day Obama leaves office.

Or did you mean you wouldn't trust any president to enforce the law?

It could be that Boehner is merely playing for time. Having offered a bit of an overture to immigrant groups on one hand, he then placates his intraparty protestors on the other. Time will pass, the issue will languish for another year and the Senate bill will die with the 113 th Congress.

Next year, there will be more Republicans in the Senate — perhaps even a Republican majority. Then the GOP could update the nation's decrepit immigration laws in a fashion more to its liking. And if that fashion has some appeal for the target immigrant groups — the Hispanics and Asians who voted more than 70% for Obama in 2012 – then it makes some sense to do it closer to the presidential election of 2016.

That all makes for good politics, except that whenever the GOP leadership really does get serious about immigration, it will still have to face its rank and file's aversion to anything that smacks of amnesty. Some say that aversion may be abating, but if so it was not evident last week in the blogosphere.

In all likelihood, Boehner understands the great opportunity his party is in danger of wasting. If Republicans offered some form of legalization, polls and other evidence suggest most immigrants would go for it. They want the chance to become citizens eventually, to be sure, but for the moment the most pressing need is the legal right to live and work here. One step at a time.

And if Democrats blocked such a legalization bill, holding out for citizenship, they could be cast as the obstructionists. They might well blunt their advantage with immigrant voters – now and for some time to come. It would, at the very least, pose an excruciating choice.

The chance to force the Democrats into that box would seem awfully tempting. The Speaker has seemed, at times, tempted. But so far at least, the watchdogs to his right have kept him from yielding.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.