The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boehner opens door a crack to citizenship

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John Boehner held a presser today at which he was pressed on what he learned from that big meeting with House GOPers yesterday. It’s being reported on as grounds for still more pessimism about reform’s prospects. As the Associated Press put it: “Boehner refused to say whether he supports a pathway to citizenship or whether the House would ever agree to legal status for unauthorized immigrants.”

That’s true. But there was one key exchange at the presser that seemed to open the door a crack to House Republicans supporting a path to citizenship — maybe, possibly — even if they continue to adhere to that fictional “Hastert Rule” they keep treating as Holy writ.

It started with a question that was specifically about legalization and/or citizenship, and the exchange continued as follows:

QUESTION: Now that you’ve heard from your conference, are you ready to express support for either of those [legalization or citizenship]?
BOEHNER: My job is to do everything I can to facilitate a process for solving this problem. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.
QUESTION: But given that, why always insist on the majority within the majority? Doesn’t that in itself sort of preclude the facilitation of that conversation?
BOEHNER: No, I don’t think so. Not at all.
QUESTION: Based on what you heard yesterday from your colleagues, do you think there’s any chance some kind of smaller bill that includes legal status or a path to citizenship can pass the House of Representatives?
BOEHNER: Well, we’re gonna find out. But it’s clear from the conversation yesterday that a vast majority of our members do believe that we have to wrestle with this problem. They also believe that we need to do this step by step.

I see this as grounds for (a tiny glimmer of) optimism. Boehner is saying the Hastert Rule needn’t preclude passage of something with citizenship in it. Accepting Boehner’s word that nothing is getting a vote without a majority of Republicans behind it, this would appear to mean Boehner thinks it’s at least possible that a majority of Republicans could eventually support something with citizenship in it later in the process. I’m not sure Boehner has ever indicated this possibility before.

Now, obviously House Republicans could pass other stuff throughout this piecemeal process that would be deal-killers for Dems — draconian border security measures as conditions for citizenship, or even as conditions for provisional legalization. Remember, we still don’t know what conditions — if any — Republicans require in order to support citizenship. But Boeher’s words today suggest some combination of conditions could get House Republicans there. Which would mean we could get to conference with House Republicans supporting a package that includes citizenship.

Boehner’s claim that “we’re gonna find out” whether House Republicans can support something with citizenship in it is also a potential tell. As Jed Lewison puts it, this clearly indicates “he plans to put his conference to the test.”

There are two operational schools of thought among those reading the immigration tea leaves. One is that the House GOP leadership is merely stretching out this process in order to let reform slowly wither and die. The other is that GOP leaders are trying to buy themselves as much maneuvering room as possible to bring their caucus along as far as possible in the direction of real reform (which is favored by GOP elites and other key stakeholders aligned with the party) without blowing things up.

Boehner’s presser today would seem to suggest that Door Number 2 is the right one. Of course, if this is true — and we still don’t even know for sure what’s really going on here — it’s still unclear whether GOP leaders can get their caucus anywhere near that door or brave the suppressive fire the right will be able to lay down in their path.