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Calling the Republican Bluff on Immigration

Getty Images: Alex Wong

Chuck Schumer is trying to call John Boehner’s bluff over immigration reform—but in a way that should, in theory, help Boehner bring along his antsy conservative allies.

Appearing on “Meet the Press” Sunday, Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York, floated a new proposal designed to win Republican support for an immigration bill—a proposal designed specifically to address concerns that Boehner raised last week, when the Speaker esssentially declared that efforts to pass reform were at an impasse. At a press conference, Boehner indicated that his fellow House Republicans won’t support an immigration bill because they don’t trust President Obama to enforce it. Fine, Schumer said on Sunday—let’s postpone the new law's effective date until 2017, when Obama isn’t president anymore.

Here's what Schumer said:

Now I think that the rap against him—that he won’t enforce the law—is false. He’s deported more people than any other president, but you could actually have the law start in 2017 without doing much violence to it.

Schumer may be right about that last part. As Politico's Seung Min Kim reported on Sunday, immigration reform advocates seem open to the idea. Partly that's because they know federal agencies would need at least a year, and probably more time than that, to write the relevant regulations anyway. 

Of course, the whole argument about Obama’s willingness to flout the law doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Republicans and their allies usually cite the regulations Obama issued as part of the Affordable Care Act as proof of his willingness to defy legislative intent. But that law very clearly left the executive branch a lot of flexibility over standards and timing. And while I’ve not always been happy with the regulations this administration issued, I’ve yet to see evidence that Obama has been using more administrative leeway than his predecessors did for their programs.

There’s also the apocryphal argument that Obama has used executive orders to pass laws without Congress—apocryphal, because Obama actually turns out to have issued fewer executive orders than any modern president, as New York magazine’s Dan Amira showed last year.

Will Schumer's proposal change the debate? Boehner spokesman Michael Steel was quick to dimiss it, calling the proposal “entirely impractical” because it “would totally eliminate the president’s incentive to enforce immigration law for the remainder of his term.” But it's always best not take such declarations at face value. Presumably Boehner is trying simultaneously to reassure nervous conservatives that he won't cut a bad deal, to give Republicans more leverage should more serious negotiations begin, and to create a handy excuse in case legislation simply proves impossible to achieve. (If you want a more detailed and insightful take on what Boehner is doing, I'd recommend reading what Steve Benen and Greg Sargent wrote in the last week.)

Lots of senior Democrats think Boehner still wants a deal. "Everything he has done this past week is evidence he wants to get it done," one aide told the New Republic on Sunday. What nobody knows is how badly Boehner wants it—and what he'd have to do to get his caucus to agree.