AP Photo/Eric Gay
AP Photo/Eric Gay

After House GOP leaders rolled out their immigration principles last week, many Republicans struck back, arguing embracing reform now is folly because, well, #OBUMMER and #OBUMMER. They said acting now could trample on gains Republicans will enjoy from Obamacare’s certain collapse and that the President can’t be trusted to honor any immigration deal.

Paul Ryan’s interview on ABC yesterday offers a clue on how GOP leaders will try to navigate around these objections. And in the process it neatly illustrates the central unknowns about House Republican thinking on the issue, the resolution of which will decide whether reform happens or dies. Here’s the key quote:

“Here’s the issue that all Republicans agree on — we don’t trust the president to enforce the law.  So if you actually look at the standards that the Republican leadership put out, which is security first, first we have to secure the border, have interior enforcement, which is a worker verification system, a visa tracking program.  Those things have to be in law, in practice and independently verified before the rest of the law can occur. So it’s a security force first, non-amnesty approach.”

Asked if Republicans could embrace reform Obama could sign, Ryan said: “That is clearly in doubt.  It depends on whether they’re willing to actually secure the border.”

The important thing to understand about Ryan’s quotes is their strategic vagueness. When Ryan says security and enforcement — the meeting of border metrics, E-Verify, etc. — must be “verified before the rest of the law can occur,” he’s deliberately fudging the dilemma Republicans face. Will the 11 million get some sort of temporary or provisional legal/work status before all these conditions are met? Or is even that automatically “amnesty” and therefore a nonstarter?

Last week on MSNBC, Ryan drew the curtain back a bit on this debate, revealing that Republicans were contemplating a “probationary status” that would allow the undocumented to work while security measures were implemented. (Republicans will continue to call whatever form of legalization they are contemplating “probation,” because legalization is amnesty.) That drew some howls from the right. So superficially, Ryan’s quote on ABC appears to be about setting down a harder line: Nothing in the “rest of the law” can proceed until security and enforcement metrics are met.

In reality, though, this quote is vague. Indeed, the very idea of a “probationary” status is all about creating a provisional way for the undocumented to work before security metrics are met and the “rest of the law” proceeds. Ryan surely knows Republicans will have to cross that bridge if reform is going to pass, because the alternative would leave millions in legal limbo for literally years while billions and billions are spent realizing those security metrics. It’s hard to see how Dems — who will be needed to pass anything out of the House — could ever accept this.

The unknown is whether GOP leaders will ultimately decide that embracing some form of legalization, or “probation” — before onerous security metrics are met — is too hard, given the politics inside the House GOP caucus. This is the context for understanding the real meaning of the “Obama can’t be trusted” talking point.

Either Ryan knows he must say this to get mainstream conservatives to even listen to him about immigration — it’s a way to reassure them of his best intentions even as GOP leaders seriously grapple with how to get to some form of legalization. (Byron York floats a version of this theory here.) Or, if Republicans decide they can’t get to that point, it will become the excuse for killing reform: Obama can’t be trusted to enforce the law – executive orders Obamacare Benghazi etc. etc. — so we can’t embrace any form of legalization, until all of our security metrics are met.

The simple truth is that we just don’t know where Republicans really are on this yet.

* THE SHRINKING MIDDLE CLASS: The New York Times has a good piece reporting that in the business world, there is no debate over whether inequality is exacerbating, because the evidence is evident in the erosion of the customer base for businesses serving the middle class, while high end consumption pulls away:

In 2012, the top 5 percent of earners were responsible for 38 percent of domestic consumption, up from 28 percent in 1995, the researchers found. Even more striking, the current recovery has been driven almost entirely by the upper crust…Since 2009, the year the recession ended, inflation-adjusted spending by this top echelon has risen 17 percent, compared with just 1 percent among the bottom 95 percent. More broadly, about 90 percent of the overall increase in inflation-adjusted consumption between 2009 and 2012 was generated by the top 20 percent of households in terms of income.

Meanwhile, consumption by the bottom 80 percent is dropping as a share of overall consumption. The piece describes the result as “the shrinking middle.” The central question: Can the economy really recover with demand being driven so disproportionately by those at the top, as the rest fall behind?

* OBAMA TAKES EXECUTIVE ACTION ON ECONOMY: Josh Hicks has the latest:

Obama issued a memorandum on Friday saying that federal agencies should not look unfavorably upon job-seekers who are unemployed or facing financial difficulties, signaling to those individuals that federal employment will not be out of their reach. Also that day, the White House announced it had secured promises from more than 300 companies that agreed to not show bias against applicants who have been out of work for more than six months.

As Jonathan Chait has explained, even if such actions are well short of the sort of Congressional action we need, they still represent a response to an important aspect of the country’s jobs emergency, in that they are designed to “create a new kind of social norm in hiring” to replace discrimination against the long term unemployed.

* GOP GRAPPLES WITH DEBT CEILING STRATEGY: David Drucker reports that House Republicans know they lack leverage to extract debt ceiling ransom, so they’re coalescing around a new strategy:

House Republicans are signaling that they might support a debt-ceiling increase that is essentially “clean” if Obama takes some sort of undefined action, presents Republicans with a strategy for tackling the debt or agrees to a process for further discussions. Whatever fig leaf is settled on, they are suggesting that they would not necessarily demand that it be tied directly to the debt-ceiling bill.But they are looking for something concrete, not a promise from Obama to consider taking action at a later date. As part of that approach, House Republicans would refuse to act on the debt ceiling until the Democratic Senate approves legislation and sends it to the House for consideration.

Here’s an alternative: Don’t stage any debt limit hostage crisis.

* A DEAL IS POSSIBLE ON IMMIGRATION: E.J. Dionne gets to the heart of where a possible deal lies:

Even without a “special” path, many immigrants, once legalized, could find ways of gaining citizenship eventually. Changes in visa allocations, including more generous rules for the spouses and parents of citizens, could help as many as 4 million undocumented residents…Republicans have already signaled openness to a path for “dreamers” — their numbers are estimated at between 800,000 and 1.5 million — who were brought to the United States illegally as children. The bill already passed by the Senate would put as many as 8 million people on a path to citizenship. A compromise that found “non-special” ways of reaching a number reasonably close to the Senate’s is now at least possible.

Yes. As I’ve noted here, if Republicans can agree to steps that would clear out existing channels from legalization to citizenship, that might be a deal Dems can accept under certain conditions.

* CONSERVATIVE GROUPS OUTRAISING GOP ESTABLISHMENT: Don’t miss Nicholas Confessore’s report on how insurgent right wing groups are outraising the Rove-founded Crossroads and other GOP establishment groups, which could undercut its ability to beat back Tea Party primary challenges that could imperil the GOP’s chances in 2014. Note this:

The emerging money gap is likely to put enormous pressure on deep-pocketed business groups to ante up, dragging historically cautious Beltway trade associations more fully into treacherous factional battles among their Republican allies…major trade associations with ties to the Republican establishment have signaled they will spend heavily in this year’s election cycle, in part to help elevate candidates who can perform strongly in matchups against Democrats.

This could continue to exacerbate the split between the GOP’s pragmatic business wing and its Tea Party wing. Meanwhile, there is nothing comparable to this schism on the Dem side.

* AND CONSERVATIVES ARE DELUDING THEMSELVES ABOUT OBAMACARE: Paul Krugman revisits the tale of “Bette in Spokane,” the woman whose horror story about Obamacare, cited in the response to the State of the Union, turned out to be a big distortion. The reliance on this sort of stuff could actually hurt Republicans the most:

Conservative politicians aren’t just deceiving their constituents; they’re also deceiving themselves. Right now, Republican political strategy seems to be to stall on every issue, and reap the rewards from Obamacare’s inevitable collapse. Well, Obamacare isn’t collapsing — it’s recovering pretty well from a terrible start. And by the time that reality sinks in on the right, health reform will be irreversible.

Serious question: have any Republicans even entertained the possibility that Obamacare’s collapse may not actually happen, let alone be sufficient to power a glorious GOP victory in 2014? Is there a Plan B?

What else?

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