Immigration Doom And Gloom Is Giving John Boehner Some Room To Operate

WASHINGTON -- Now that immigration reform has been declared almost dead by many media outlets, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is in a tolerable position going into Wednesday afternoon's meeting with House Republicans, and likely for the rest of the summer.

If the House can't pass anything, it will not be a cataclysmic shock. It will be, in a sense, old news. And while it would still be bad for the Republican Party, and damaging to Boehner, a slow and unsurprising failure is far better, politically, than an unexpected one. Additionally, the perception that the bill is nearly dead could strengthen Boehner's hand in negotiations with Democrats and the White House.

Immigration reform is not dead. The doom and gloom is being fed, at least in part, by GOP leadership, to help position them politically for the coming fight.

One of the key GOP players of the reform effort, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said in an interview Wednesday morning that he still thinks Congress can pass something through both chambers that President Barack Obama will sign.

"I think we're going to get to conference and I think we're going to pass something ultimately. I really do. This is not always a calm, pretty process. The legislative process never is. But I ultimately think we're going to get something done. I really do," he said. "How we get there, I think we have a long way to go. But I'm frankly still very optimistic. I've never thought that this was going to be an easy process."

Why is there so much talk that the process is dead, then?

"There was an over blown euphoria, for months, that, 'Hey, this is done.' Well the reality is that nothing is done until something is sent over to the president's desk. And that's a very difficult, long process," Diaz-Balart said.

Diaz-Balart, whose congressional district stretches from the western suburbs of Miami across the southern tip of Florida to the Gulf Coast, has been part of a bipartisan group of House members meeting all year to try to reach an agreement. And he is correct that for much of the early part of this year, immigration reform was viewed as a fait accompli.

It's also true that two things have become clear over the last month or so. First, there is significant opposition to a path to citizenship within the House Republican conference, and deep distrust of the process for reconciling legislation between the House and Senate, called the conference committee process. And second, conservatives have reconsidered the knee jerk reaction they had to last fall's presidential election and have decided -- with the help of a four-part series by Real Clear Politics' Sean Trende -- the logic of a widespread argument, that "immigration reform equals reconciliation with Hispanics equals avoiding extinction as a party," was not as rigorous or accurate as they first thought.

Respected conservative voices like The New York Times' Ross Douthat have laid out arguments this week explaining why this is a moment for the GOP to avoid what he sees as a short cut to resurgence. He says it's an opportunity for the party to do the hard work of reconfiguring and rethinking its economic arguments, in order to reach a broader group of voters than just Hispanics and become more populist.

But if there is a desertion on the right from the John McCain/Lindsey Graham school of thought that the GOP must pass a bill or die, that could, counterintuitively, work in favor of reform. If there is some consensus that their party is not being forced to do anything, but that there is still a genuine problem that needs fixing, that might change the mood a bit and ease some of the distrust on the hard right.

A question then would be how to resolve opposition among House conservatives to the Senate bill's path to citizenship.

"If we can get a secure border, and more than just a promise or a committement but a pathway to a secure border ... I believe across the board, tea party groups, all groups, would support some kind of a robust program to allow people to work here. Not get citizenship, but allow them to be able to work here," Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said last month.

It's unclear whether the bulk of immigration hawks in the House GOP are wholly opposed to citizenship, or simply the path to citizenship laid out in the Senate bill, which creates a new kind of "registered provisional immigrant" visa.

Diaz-Balart said that "on the right, there is a small group of folks -- it's a very small group of folks, and when I say small, I'm talking about a handful -- who say that if you broke the law that you should never be eligible to aspire to citizenship."

He signaled that there is room to maneuver on this question.

"Path to citizenship: You ask different people what that means and everybody has different definitions," he said.

He indicated support for a proposal floated in the Senate by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in his "No New Pathway to Citizenship" amendment to the Senate bill, which was never voted on in the upper chamber.

"I think most Republicans will accept a path that, once you get right with the law, would accept that you would have the same rights to apply for citizenship in the same way as folks who have done things legally," he said.

Paul's amendment would have done essentially that, eliminating "the new and exclusive visa category and pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants" in the Senate bill. Paul wanted to expand "existing work visa categories instead of creating a new Registered Provisional Immigrant status."

"This updated work visa will not give any individual a new pathway to citizenship," read the summary from Paul's office. "Rather they will be treated as if they are in line in their home country. No preference will be given to those on a work visa over individuals who are in line and outside the borders of the United States."

A Paul aide described it this way: "All the different existing guest worker programs, we got rid of all the caps ... and said if you can qualify for an existing program, then you're in."

The aide told HuffPost that they have been "very aggressive" in pushing their amendments to House members, an indication that despite Paul's withdrawal of support for the Senate bill, he remains interested and an active player in trying to make something work in the House.

Conservative Latino leaders are starting to pick up this chorus as well, suggesting that there is a move afoot to coordinate support for it.

"What if they were to propose to legalize people under a guest worker program that doesn't close the door to citizenship," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. "You could say, there's still a path to citizenship, it's just the normal path."

"That could get the majority of the majority," he added.

Going forward, it's still unclear whether most tea party Republicans could support a bill like that, or whether most of them don't want to provide any access to citizenship at all. If a majority of Republicans would support such a bill, the question would then be whether there is any give among Democrats to accept such a compromise.

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