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Column: GOP Senators Take a Risk on Immigration

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

The future of immigration reform is, for now at least, not up to House Speaker John Boehner. It is in the hands of a group of moderately conservative Republican senators who have to decide whether their desire to solve a decades-old problem outweighs their fears of retaliation from the party’s right wing.

These senators have clearly been looking for a way to vote for a bill that is the product of excruciating but largely amicable negotiations across partisan and ideological barriers. But these Republicans — they include Bob Corker, John Hoeven, Susan Collins, Dean Heller and Rob Portman — wanted enough changes in the measure’s border security provisions so they could tell Tea Party constituents that they didn’t just go along with a middle-of-the-road consensus.

Here was their problem: Changes that so complicated a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as to render it meaningless were (rightly) unacceptable to supporters of reform, including most Democrats. But if the GOP senators accepted something short of this, they would face furious attacks from the hard-core opponents of any move toward large-scale naturalization of those who came here illegally.

In the end, there was no way around their dilemma. If they wanted a bill, they had to take political risks. On Thursday, they did, announcing a planned amendment on border security that most Democrats are likely to accept.

Boehner got a lot of attention the other day for what appeared to be a firm statement that he would not let an immigration bill through the House without majority support from Republicans. On its face, his statement would seem to doom reform, given where that majority now seems to stand.

But as he typically (and, in his partial defense, perhaps necessarily) does, Boehner left himself wiggle room. “I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that will violate the principles of our majority and divide our conference,” he said.

Ah, yes, and let’s remember that this week’s “intention” does not necessarily determine tomorrow’s strategy. It’s in Boehner’s interest to keep the large right end of his caucus at bay and to stake out a hard line to extract as many concessions from the Senate as he can. In the House at the moment, tomorrow is always another day.

What may matter is not how many Republican votes he gets but whether a majority of his caucus quietly decides that passing immigration reform is better for the party than blocking it.

Many in such a majority might actually vote against a bill they privately want to see enacted. By doing so, they could satisfy their base voters back home while getting the immigration issue off the political agenda and ending the GOP’s cold war with Latino voters.

This is not unduly cynical. Many essential laws have passed because legislators found a way to balance their political needs with their convictions. The Lincoln movie is instructive on the matter.

Such calculations explain the tensions among Senate Democrats over the best way forward. Politico recently reported on differences between Sen. Charles Schumer, the leading architect of the compromise bill, and Sen. Dick Durbin and Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Schumer is more willing to accept further compromises in order to get broad GOP support. He wants 70 votes for a bill, believing that a big margin would increase pressure on the House to act. He also wants to deprive Republicans of the chance to use procedural complaints as an excuse for voting no.

Durbin and Reid are wary of giving any more ground. They want to preserve negotiating space with the House and believe enough Republicans already know they have to support reform. They see the House as so unpredictable that watering down the bill may not, in any event, be very helpful.

But this difference appears to have produced, if unintentionally, a good cop/bad cop dynamic that helped keep the key group of Senate Republicans from undercutting the bill. Schumer was open to beefing up the border security provisions, as long as the path to citizenship wasn’t disrupted. He also made clear that there were limits on how far his party could go in providing the swing Republicans with political cover.

Which brings it all back to Corker, Hoeven and their allies. A Congressional Budget Office report on Tuesday showing that immigration reform could cut some $900 billion from the deficit over the next two decades made it easier for them to make a deal. And in the end, they took the risk of pushing reform forward.