During his regular weekly press conference on Thursday, Speaker John Boehner appeared to drop the other shoe on Republican immigration reform efforts, saying that he "never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year." The New York Times called it "a retreat" on the issue. But it may have simply been smart politics.
In fuller context, here's what Boehner said, via Politico.
I never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year. There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. And it's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.
Fatalist! And right on the heels of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell throwing up his hands at the prospect of the two chambers reaching consensus on an immigration package. Oh well!
But as Slate's Dave Weigel notes, rumors of reform's demise may be premature. On the issue of Boehner's woe-is-me concern over the administration enforcing laws, it's "straight from the current approved talking points," Weigel notes. Which reinforces one of the three reasons there's reason to think Boehner is bluffing.
1. Boehner's statement was an attack on President Obama.
Weigel notes similar "worried about enforcing the laws" language from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan. That's a ding on Obama in at least three ways. First, it reinforces the ongoing attacks over Obama as "lawless," which began with his recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and most recently have found expression in the handling of the Obamacare rollout. The critique spiked after Obama said he'd use executive action where possible instead of waiting for Congress to act — mean that we're still on the tail end of the spike. John Boehner is blaming Obama for there being no movement on immigration, while reinforcing what Republicans criticize the president for. Win-win.
2. Boehner is keeping the conservative base pacified.
Immigration is a hot button among conservatives. Always has been, and discussion of immigration reform only exacerbates it.
Look at the reaction to Coke's Super Bowl ad. Fury about singing "America the Beautiful" in languages other than English is raw xenophobism, obviously, but is also inextricable from the debate over introducing a pathway to citizenship for people who immigrated illegally. See Fox News' ideologue-in-chief Todd Starnes: "So was Coca-Cola saying America is beautiful because new immigrants don't learn to speak English?"
As the Los Angeles Times reports, even the idea that the House might act on immigration reform has mobilized activists in opposition. "Conservative activists who view legal status for immigrants as 'amnesty' flooded Boehner's office telephones this week. … Comments on the speaker's website were harsh: 'You are a turncoat,' read one." By suggesting, however obliquely, that nothing can be done on immigration, Boehner pours a little water on that fire.
3. Boehner is helping his caucus by postponing a tough issue until other critical votes — and the primaries — are over.
Boehner dismissing immigration reform is exactly what you'd expect if he wanted to kick the issue past the party's always-contentious primary campaigns in the Spring. And that's precisely what the party had indicated it would do: take up the issue once the threat from the right had evaporated.
That's the whole point. Boehner's comments were exactly what he needed to say to have a successful vote on the issue in the future, and exactly what he needed to keep his fragile alliance on the week's other big topic: the debt ceiling. Boehner has hard-right conservatives on-board with lifting the debt ceiling without a fight; he certainly doesn't want to toss a hornet's nest in their laps right now. Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador will happily pass the debt ceiling, but warns that immigration reform could cost Boehner his leadership position.
Assuming Boehner is bluffing now, that doesn't mean that 1) the House will move on immigration reform or 2) that it will mollify the far-right. Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, running enthusiastically for the Senate, released the (weird) ad at right this week, blending the debt ceiling with the immigration debate. Real conservatives, he's implying, will flatly oppose both. That's what Boehner has to look forward to.
But there will be fewer such objections this summer, once Republicans can move back to the center for general election campaigns in November. Broun is alway way out on the fringe, so his position won't change. But McConnell's objections seem translatable: he's almost certain to beat his conservative challenger, but won't want to make any overtures on immigration until he does so.
MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin spoke with immigration activists today, who he said were "pretty grim" in the wake of Boehner's comments. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who's long been pushing for reform, doesn't seem put-off. Boehner "is sending messages," Schumer said, according to the Times. "I believe that there is a good portion of the Republican leadership" — including Boehner — "that wants to do a bill. I believe they know it’s difficult. I believe they know it’s not a straight line process." In other words: stay tuned.
Update, 2:00 p.m.: See also The Post's Greg Sargent, who explores the specific policy options more fully.