National Review’s Jonathan Strong, who is well connected among House Republicans, makes a point that is absolutely crucial to understanding the road ahead on immigration reform:

Speaker John Boehner wants to pass a series of small bills dealing with immigration reform piece by piece, but it’s not clear whether 218 votes, the required number for passage, will be there for any of them.

Top Democrats are already signaling they’ll oppose the various bills being prepared by the GOP leadership, and conservative Republicans, especially, are wary. Many Republicans will prefer to simply vote against any bill, even if they agree with elements of the legislation, just to prevent Boehner from going to conference with the Senate. Such a conference, many conservatives fear, could lead to a consensus bill that includes amnesty.

This is why the critical question remains: Is there anything that can get a majority of House Republicans to support a path to citizenship under any circumstances? If there isn’t, then there is no percentage for those House Republicans who oppose citizenship to allow the process to move forward at all, even if it means advancing  efforts to fix the system they themselves support. After all, that process could mean Republicans will be forced to negotiate with Democrats in conference, which could mean they will be under increased pressure to compromise, which could mean they would be under increased pressure to accept citizenship, which they aren’t prepared to accept, even if it means getting their own way on increased border security and enforcement in return.

Strong’s reporting is inconclusive on how many Republicans might opt to oppose anything put forth in order to avoid negotiations later. But it provides a useful framework for understanding House GOP conduct moving forward, and for understanding the true range of options that remain. Strong notes that it’s possible House Republicans could pass bills beefing up security and enforcement, but that Boehner “doesn’t have his conference ready to consider much beyond what the GOP has discussed on border security and enforcement.” What that appears to mean is that even if Republicans pass the measures they themselves want in terms of enforcement, they still may not be prepared to embrace anything else.

In this scenario, the best possible outcome would be that we head into conference negotiations with a House Republican package that doesn’t include citizenship. Needless to say, that dims the prospects of conference producing something meaningful or comprehensive. But even if conference did produce something with citizenship in it, if you take Boehner at his word that nothing will ever get a vote that lacks the support of a majority of House Republicans, as long as a majority can’t accept citizenship, such a measure would never get a vote on the House floor. And so the end game of necessity would be that House Republicans would never hold any vote on comprehensive immigration reform. And this would be the better outcome. The worse one — which Strong suggests as a real possibility — is that House Republicans pass nothing whatsoever.

In either case, House Republicans would not be acting at all on comprehensive immigration reform.The only way the House GOP leadership could act on comprehensive reform at that point would be to allow a vote on the Senate bill, which Boehner has also ruled out.

Boehner himself — after that meeting with House Republicans last week — seemed to signal that he knows full well that not acting is untenable. Boehner and the GOP leadership may end up gambling that passing a few piecemeal bills only focused on security — and then not allowing any vote on comprehensive reform that includes citizenship — can be sold as “acting.” It’s a tough sell, and my bet is that it will look like an even tougher sell later this year when House Republicans are faced with the choice of acting on comprehensive reform or killing it. Yet as long as a majority of House Republicans are not prepared to accept citizenship — and as long as nothing that doesn’t have the support of House Republicans is getting a House vote, as Boehner insists — that’s the only feasible endgame.

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