John Boehner resurrects immigration reform

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)<br />(Brendan Smialowskia/AFP/Getty Images)

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)
(Brendan Smialowskia/AFP/Getty Images)

If personnel is policy then House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is serious about immigration reform. In an otherwise ordinary list of new staffers, his office announced, “Rebecca Tallent will join the office as Assistant to the Speaker for Policy handling immigration issues.  Rebecca comes to us from the Bipartisan Policy Center, where she is the director of immigration policy.”

The position is not a new one, but putting a high profile person in the job signals the speaker is giving more than lip service to immigration reform. His press secretary Michael Steel tells me, “The Speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms – the kind of reforms the American people understand and support.” He adds, “Becky Tallent, a well-known expert in this field of public policy, is a great addition to our team and that effort.”

With scant time left on the congressional calendar and host of must-do items including the so-called doc fix and a budget yet to be done, immigration reform is unlikely to get through the House by the end of the month. However, Tallent’s hiring is another sign, in addition to multiple statements by the speaker, that immigration reform is alive and kicking.

Although it is an election year, 2014 may afford a better opportunity than previously imagined for accomplishing something on the immigration front. The Dems and White House are more desperate than ever for some achievement, and their fear the Senate may flip in Nov. 2014 should encourage some flexibility. Meanwhile, the House right wing is not the force it was before the shutdown, while the speaker’s popularity has grown among his troops.

A final factor may play a role in pushing immigration reform to the fore. Center-right business leaders and groups, who mostly favor comprehensive immigration reform as an economic boost, are plainly alarmed about the 2014 election and have entered the fray both to unseat hard-line gadflies like Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and bolster mainstream Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). That gives reform-minded lawmakers some confidence they will get cover in 2014 if  they take some political heat for backing immigration reform. It also may persuade GOP skeptics to take another look at the polls, which generally show immigration reform including an earned path to citizenship to be popular, even among Republicans.

The precise form that immigration legislation will take is still not clear.  The president has already signaled that a series of bills  as opposed to one large bill would be acceptable. The critical issues will boil down to the requirements for legalization and the nature of the legal status (citizenship, citizenship with no “special path,”  green card status, etc.) will take. Regardless of whether the Senate and House can reach a meeting of the minds, the seriousness with which the speaker is taking the issue and the encouraging words from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who is charged with crafting actual legislation, suggests there has been some reconsideration in GOP ranks as to the desirability of at least passing a House version of immigration reform. That is a remarkable turnaround from a few months ago when the conventional wisdom proclaimed immigration reform dead.

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