The House Speaker, in a private meeting with House conservatives this morning, made a big show of talking tough on immigration reform, claiming he has “no intention” of allowing a House vote on anything that doesn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans:

Speaker John Boehner privately tried to assure conservatives in a closed-door meeting Tuesday that he wouldn’t advance an immigration bill through the House  without the support of the majority of Republicans. Boehner acknowledged that he has violated this principle — called the Hastert  rule — before, but only when there is “zero leverage,” or a bad alternative,  such as on the fiscal cliff and hurricane relief.

“Let me be clear,” Boehner said, according to a source in the closed GOP  meeting, “Immigration is not one of these scenarios. We have plenty of leverage.  And I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that will violate the  principles of our majority and divide our conference. One of our principles is  border security. I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that the  people in this room do not believe secures our borders. It’s not gonna happen.”

After the meeting, he reiterated the claim to reporters, and even trash-talked the Senate gang of eight plan for good measure:

“I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have a majority support of Republicans,” Boehner said during a press briefing with reporters Tuesday.

“I frankly think the Senate bill is weak on border security, I think the internal enforcement mechanisms are weak and the triggers are almost laughable,” he said of the bill drafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

There’s some interesting sleight of hand here. Note that Boehner seems more focused on enforcement and border security than on citizenship. The Speaker is claiming that if a majority of House Republicans thinks the emerging proposal isn’t tough enough on border security, then the House won’t vote on it. But the real Rubicon House Republicans must cross is the path to citizenship. What happens if a majority of House Republicans can’t support the path to citizenship, no matter how tough the border security elements are made? In that scenario, if Boehner holds to his vow, the House wouldn’t vote on anything that includes citizenship, right? And that scenario very well may come to pass.

Someone needs to ask the Speaker: If a majority of House Republicans can’t accept a path to citizenship, will you really not allow a House vote on any emerging proposal that contains one?

There are two apparent endgames here. Either the House ends up not passing anything. In that case Boehner will have to decide whether to allow the House to vote on the Senate bill — including a path to citizenship. He claims he won’t allow it if a majority of Republicans opposes it. But the pressure on him to allow a vote will be very intense, from powerful GOP stakeholders such as the business community and wide swaths of the consulting/strategist establishment.

Or, alternatively, the House passes something and we go to conference. What happens if whatever emerges from conference contains a path to citizenship, and a majority of House Republicans don’t support it? Asked today by reporters what would happen then, Boehner’s response contained a key tell:

Asked he would require majority Republican support on a bill that came out of  a formal negotiation with the senate, Boehner said “we’ll see when we get  there.”

In other words, Boehner would not rule out a vote that violates the supposed “Hastert Rule.”

I’m with Jonathan Bernstein: This all turns on whether enough Republicans privately want comprehensive reform to pass for the good of the party, even if they are not prepared to vote for it. If so, Boehner will let it go to the floor. Even if it must pass with mostly Dems. Don’t buy all the tough talk. Boehner himself doesn’t know how this is going to end.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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