May 17, 2013

House negotiators announced yesterday that they’d reached a bipartisan agreement on an immigration bill. But as Ed Kilgore colorfully points out today, there’s not really any actual deal. Instead, on key items such as guest workers and health care, they’ve agreed to disagree for now — which sort of undermines the point of a unified bipartisan framework for a bill.

No surprise; the House has shown zero ability to legislate over the last three years.

So what are the prospects for getting reform through the House? There are essentially three possible paths.

1. The House could take up the Senate bill and pass it. It’s almost certain that this would be the same coalition we’ve seen on the fiscal cliff and the Violence Against Women Act: it would pass with most of the Democrats and under half of the Republicans.

2. The House could take up the Senate bill, but replace it with a Republican substitute. The problem is that it’s very unlikely that any such substitute could draw 218 votes. Any substitute without a path to citizenship (as some conservatives want) would receive little or no Democratic support. Beyond that, it’s unclear what House Republicans could united behind, because there just isn’t any consensus Republican position on the issue.

3. The House could take up and defeat the Senate bill. That’s also unlikely; it probably would indicate a failure of the leadership to count votes, since why bother putting the bill on the floor unless it can win?

4. There’s the option that Republicans have talked about, which involves chopping immigration into several different bills instead of one comprehensive bill. That option which virtually guarantees that comprehensive immigration reform dies, since supporters aren’t going to be willing to pass border security or other provisions without securing a path to citizenship.

What all this comes down to, really, is that the prospects for reform passing turn on one thing: whether the bulk of the mainstream conservatives in the Republican conference privately want something to pass or not. If they do, then it’s option number one – the House passes the Senate version, mostly with Democratic votes, with many conservatives voting against it (while privately signaling assent that it be allowed to get a vote and pass). This allows it to get through without their own fingerprints on it. If mainstream conservatives don’t want something to pass, we’re not getting reform.

If you want to know whether something will pass, watch the tea leaves indicating what mainstream conservatives are thinking: do they think passing something is necessary for the future of the party, or would they rather feed the base, one more time, even if it risks losing another generation or Latino voters?

Nothing of any policy substance will happen in the House; the only thing that matters in the House is the political decision of whether Republicans want something to pass or not. All the important policy elements of reform will be hashed out in the Senate. Basically, all signs indicate that House Republicans don’t actually have the capability to handle serious policy formation, anyway.

If the House passes reform mostly with Democratic votes, will John Boehner’s speakership be in trouble, as some conservatives have argued?

Don’t worry about Boehner’s job. If the bulk of his conference wants this bill to pass but doesn’t want to vote for it, they may well bash him in public for once again passing a bill with mostly Democratic votes — but they’ll know, as they did with VAWA and the fiscal cliff, that he’s really just arranging for the outcome they want. But if the bulk of mainstream conservatives in the Republican conference doesn’t want something to pass, then reform will fail.