April 22, 2013

The best analysis I’ve seen on the fate of the immigration bill comes from Jonathan Chait today. He’s exactly correct that this is different in important respects from the gun bill. In fact, it’s a lot like the Violence Against Women Act: for at least a lot of Republicans, it’s not a fight they want to have, and not a fight they want to win.

Chait argues, correctly in my view, that this means that the immigration bill opponents’ strategy of killing the bill by sending it to committee and dismembering it probably will be overridden by a decision to send the bill to the House floor as is (once it passes the Senate). There, it will pass with plenty of Democratic votes and fewer than half of all Republicans.

Does that mean that it’s all up to John Boehner? “The House Speaker’s control of the legislative process will dictate whether immigration reform lives or dies,” Chait wrote. That’s true in the immediate sense, but overall what really matters — what Boehner will listen to — is where mainstream conservatives in his conference are. Not the handful of moderates and the handful of active supporters of immigration reform, and not the 20 or 40 or so extreme conservatives. It’s the rest of the caucus that matters. Most of those Republicans will probably vote against any bill on the House floor; many of them may denounce Boehner for the cameras for allowing it to pass, if he does. But make no mistake: Boehner won’t bring the bill to the floor unless most of those mainstream conservatives want him to.

Another way to look at this is whether perceived electoral incentives will trump other, less benign, interests. Or, to put it another way: Will those outside Congress follow financial self-interest and rile up GOP primary voters so strongly that members of Congress believe they have to follow them and oppose immigration reform, even if it hurts the party in general elections?

We’ll see. My guess, as is Chait’s, is that Republicans really would like this thing to pass, and that they want Boehner to bring up any Senate-passed bill so that the House can allow it to pass. But one way or another, that’s what will determine it — not what John Boehner wants.