Have House Republicans decided now is the time for immigration reform? It’s tempting to think so, given the way they are talking.
There were a pair of video testimonials in support of legal status from Illinois representatives Aaron Schock and Adam Kinzinger. There was Rep. Peter King’s letter to Speaker John Boehner, which said, “The reality…is that we are not going to deport 11 million immigrants.” There was Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s comment to CQ Roll Call Friday that “It is as close as we have ever been. It is still a big, big, heavy lift… I think we’re going to get there.” And of course, there was Boehner’s own appearance in his home district, where he mocked his caucus’s reticence to pass reform, whining, “Here’s the attitude: Ohhhh. Don’t make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard.”
But while all of these statements got media attention, Democrats and immigration advocates I consulted on Monday said they remain skeptical the flurry will amount to anything. “Until Republicans sign the discharge petition”—a Democratic stratagem designed to force a vote on H.R. 15, the House companion of a Senate-passed bill—“and push for a vote on H.R. 15, they’re not serious,” said Jeff Hauser of the AFL-CIO. A press release from the group America’s Voice on Monday bore the title, “Enough Talk, Give Us a Vote,” and noted that immigration reform did not appear on the spring legislative agenda that Majority Leader Eric Cantor issued last week.
Those pushing for a bill are particularly frustrated with Boehner, and for one simple reason that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it should lately: He could shepherd the comprehensive reform bill through any time he chose.
Boehner has tended to run the House with the so-called “Hastert Rule,” which says he can only bring a bill up for a vote if the majority of his party is for it. Under that mandate, immigration reform has lain fallow. But the Speaker can break the Hastert Rule whenever he wants, and Boehner has done so for legislation he deemed particularly important—for example, to deliver aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. He has the power to bring H.R. 15 up for a vote right now—and if he did, it would almost certainly pass. The bill has 197 Democratic co-sponsors (and three Republican ones). It would need only a smattering of Republicans with moderate views or from Latino-heavy districts. “It’s very clear that the votes are here to pass H.R. 15,” said Drew Hammill, communications director and senior adviser to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. And that’s why “the buck stops with the Speaker of the House."
Is Boehner preparing to force a vote? An editorial in the Washington Post this weekend credited him with having the right intentions, at least. It called Boehner’s recent performance in Ohio a “bracing shot of honesty.” The piece glancingly acknowledged that Boehner is the roadblock between H.R. 15 and the president’s signature—“He knows that if he were ever to permit the full House to vote on the Senate immigration bill...it would pass”—but put most of the blame for inaction on his causes.
Boehner may grasp the political imperative for Republicans: Three-quarters of Americans support a path to legal status for immigrants living here illegally, and the Latino electorate is growing fast in many Republican strongholds. But some immigrant-rights advocates think the Speaker has other motives. “My sense is that the timing of Boehner’s remarks linked with the timing of the president’s review of deportation policy,” said Chris Newman of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. That’s a reference to an ongoing review by the Department of Homeland Security, which will likely result in Obama using executive authority to adjust the deportations system. Newman doubts that Boehner is trying to signal that he’s ready to pass reform. In his view, “Boehner’s remarks are designed to deter the president from exercising [his] legal authority.”