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The Boehner Supremacy

Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration America’s Voice, had this to say about Speaker of the House John Boehner and the immigration bill: “The fate of the Republican Party may rest in Boehner’s hands.”

A comforting thought, that — if you’re a Democrat.

In truth, Boehner is in one helluva spot. The Light Brigade has got nothing on the speaker. They both may have “cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them, cannon in front of them,” but Boehner is also sitting on a nuclear bomb while the Sword of Damocles hangs over his head.

Everyone who is anyone in the Republican Party is mad at him. He’s catching hell from the Tea Party caucus and the hard right for even entertaining the notion of bringing an immigration bill to the floor. And the more establishment-oriented party whales are looking nervously at the polls and putting pressure on the speaker to bring to the House floor comprehensive reform that will probably emerge from the Senate in the next few weeks. The money men are worried that if the House kills off immigration reform, the GOP will pay the price at the ballot box in both 2014 and 2016.

It got so bad this week that Boehner had to assure his caucus in a closed-door meeting that he wouldn’t bring any immigration bill to the floor unless it was supported by half the Republicans in Congress. This is after a veteran congressman threatened to lead an effort to oust Boehner from his speakership unless he got that majority support. The Rohrbacher Ultimatum smoked Boehner out of the closet he’d been hiding in on immigration reform, as this announcement was the first indication of what his plans are going forward.

From the Rohrbacher Ultimatum to the Boehner Supremacy, the speaker brings to mind the character Jason Bourne. Not the insipid movie character played by Matt Damon, but the tortured, fragile instrument of lethality drawn by author Robert Ludlum in the trio of books that Hollywood gutted and destroyed on film. As written by Ludlum, Jason Bourne (a.k.a. David Webb) was not an assassin. He was a CIA cutout created to draw Carlos the Jackal out of hiding so he could be killed.

But Bourne/Webb was also a tortured soul. He couldn’t figure out who he was. Evidence kept pointing to him being a notorious international killer, but his beloved Marie (a Canadian economist stationed in Geneva, not some hippie chick who lived off the grid) believed he couldn’t be that man. Boehner doesn’t know whether he should act alike a statesman or a partisan hack. If he acts like a statesman, he may feel good about himself but could also lose his job. If he acts like a partisan, his base will be satisfied but the New York Times and Washington Post will call him names. And, who knows? Maybe the money men are right and the GOP will get slaughtered in 2014 if they block immigration reform.

Boehner is trying to keep his options open, according to Time magazine:

On Tuesday he seemed to assure his colleagues that he would not pass a bill without them, but left himself plenty of outs. “Any immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties’ support,” he said. “And so I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have a majority support of Republicans.” Ought to; not will. And just because he doesn’t “see any way” now doesn’t mean one won’t emerge.

Boehner has left himself some wiggle room by making it clear that one of his key allies, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, would ramrod immigration reform through the House. And Goodlatte has a decidedly different approach than the Senate’s 1,000-page comprehensive-reform measure. He is an “enforcement first” Republican and has made it known that any reform of immigration laws will be dealt with in a piecemeal fashion. On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee took up a controversial bill that “would give state and local jurisdictions the right to identify, apprehend, investigate, and detain illegal immigrants.” Illegal-immigrant activists wailed against it, but they should check the polls. By a wide margin the American people prefer that the government enforce the laws already on the books (the country is split on whether enforcement should come before a path to citizenship). Democrats in the Senate are adamantly opposed to any kind of border-security measures besides the milquetoast provisions in the comprehensive package.

Another enforcement measure that will be introduced as separate legislation is an E-Verify bill that would phase in a program for employers to verify the citizenship of their employees. This legislation tracks fairly close to the provisions in the Senate bill. Other pieces of legislation that may also survive the Judiciary Committee as stand-alone bills include visa reform for highly skilled workers and perhaps some kind of modified DREAM Act for the children of illegals. Goodlatte has promised to come up with legislation for the 11 million illegals who are already here, but he hasn’t specified anything and it is doubtful there is a market in the Republican caucus to touch on that issue.

Boehner is gambling that the Democrats want immigration reform so badly that they will accept the GOP piecemeal approach and perhaps do some horse trading on enforcement in exchange for GOP passage of one or more of their pet provisions. This would mean that comprehensive reform is effectively killed along with the odious “path to citizenship” provision that a clear majority of Republicans in the House oppose.

If nothing else, John Boehner has proven himself a survivor. He may be an ineffective speaker and a poor leader, but part of that is the nature of politics today and especially in the minority party. Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford identifies one of the problems:

Whoever the party is in the White House has a single spokesperson. Everyone focuses on things they say. The party that’s out of power, you’ve got random scattered voices everywhere. I think [a lawmaker’s] first priority really is to represent your district. I really do. But I think you should have in the back of your mind, “Does this help us in the rest of the country as well, in articulating this message?”

With Obama’s approval numbers sinking, Boehner will feel less and less pressure to accede to the wishes of Senate Democrats and deal with a comprehensive immigration-reform package. But he can’t turn his back entirely on the issue. So the speaker will continue to walk the line between satisfying the majority of his caucus and pleasing the establishment. Passing some kind of immigration reform may not get the GOP very far with Hispanics. But killing it might hurt them even more with that ethnic group.

In the final chapter of the Bourne trilogy, David Webb finally finds a measure of peace after vanquishing his enemies. No such satisfying ending for Speaker Boehner is likely. Unless he treads carefully, immigration reform has the potential to destroy his speakership — and perhaps Republican chances for success at the polls in 2014.

More: That New Senate Agreement to ‘Bolster’ Border Security? It’s a Fraud.