August 21, 2013

Here’s some video of GOP Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, under pressure from a pro-immigration protestors, saying that reform will, indeed, get done, and voicing support for a path to citizenship for at least some of the 11 million:

Dent’s stance — legalization if border security is met, combined with openness to citizenship for some (though who exactly remains unclear) — puts Dent in roughly the same camp as a number of other House Republicans who have spoken out in recent days. These Republicans have offered varying degrees of support for comprehensive reform, but what binds them is their acknowledgment that the status quo is untenable and something must be done about the 11 million.

TPM’s Josh Marshall and Frank Sharry of America’s Voice have engaged in a fascinating back and forth over reform’s prospects. Marshall first declared reform “likely dead.” To which Sharry responded that its hopes are very much alive. To which Marshall responded that perhaps reform can be resurrected but it’s time to explain who put it on its death bed: “I want reformers to stop pretending that House Republicans aren’t telling us what they’re telling us, which is that they’re killing it.”

Yes, but I’d state the case somewhat differently. It isn’t so much that House Republicans are killing it. It’s more that many want it to die as horrific and painful a death as possible; others (far too few, but still) understand the status quo is unacceptable and are genuinely grappling with the issue; and GOP leaders are distracted by heckling from conservatives demanding fiscal Armageddon this fall and are just trying to put off deciding whether to take reform off of the death row of Congressional inaction. The way to the clarity Marshall rightly wants is to continually point out that reform only dies if GOP leaders kill it.

Even conservatives worry John Boehner (and more so Paul Ryan) want to find a way to get to comprehensive reform of some kind. Boehner has even said he intends to put his caucus to the test on whether it can support citizenship. But the real story may be that House GOP leaders haven’t decided how to proceed. They are waiting to hear from members — some of whom are genuinely taking constituents’ temperature — and as Byron York says, if there isn’t a lot of right wing blowback they may decide it’s safe to proceed. I don’t see evidence the decision to kill reform has already been made. GOP leaders are preoccupied with the debt limit and government shutdown fights, which will probably force immigration reform into 2014 in any case.

Ultimately the outcome will turn on whether the GOP leadership allows votes on enough piecemeal measures — or even a vote on a comprehensive House gang of seven bill — to take to conference negotiations; whether the GOP leadership will decide to go to conference at all; and whether the leadership will allow a vote on something out of conference that lacks a majority of Republicans.

But the bottom line is all that will be influenced by internal caucus politics. If enough House Republicans privately don’t mind much if reform passes for the good of the party, as long as they don’t have to vote for it, Boehner can break the fictional Hastert Rule. That becomes more likely if Republicans who genuinely want action against the unacceptable status quo agitate for it inside the caucus. Only a year ago the position of the entire GOP was that any kind of provisional legalization constituted unacceptable “amnesty.” For some Republicans to be moving off that position is not nothing.

Indeed, the conditions are there for GOP leaders to make reform happen if they want to, and the excuses for not acting are gone: the conservative backlash hasn’t materialized; new evidence shows reform will help the economy; some Republicans do want action; and GOP leaders understand the demographic risks of inaction are severe. If opposition inside the caucus to action is very intense this fall, Republican leaders will let it die. But is it clear that this is preordained to happen? No, it isn’t. And if it doesn’t, we’re back where we started — if GOP leaders decide they want reform to pass, the details will fall into place.

The chances that comprehensive reform will pass the House are very slim. But the notion that GOP leaders have already decided to kill it, and are cleverly biding their time while they prepare the execution chamber, almost gives them too much credit.

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