A secret warrior for amnesty??? (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) A secret warrior for amnesty??? (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

If there’s one thing that will test whether the GOP leadership’s stiff-arming of conservatives on the budget deal bodes well for future cooperation on other major issues, it’s immigration. Reform has been pronounced dead and undead so many times that it’s hard to take predictions about it seriously anymore, but this is the first genuine reason for cautious optimism I’ve seen in some time, though there are important caveats.

The Hill reports that a top ally of John Boehner, Rep. Tom Cole, now predicts House Republicans may vote on multiple reform measures in 2014:

With the caveat that the House will not vote on the Senate-passed bill, Cole envisions a situation where Boehner allows a vote on a couple or all of the four-House-Judiciary Committee-passed measures on immigration reform/border security.

Noting that Boehner has made it “abundantly clear” that he’d like to move immigration bills, Cole said that “we just saw a budget deal that made progress that brought people together from both sides from very different perspectives and I suspect that can be done on immigration as well.”

Earlier this fall, before Boehner declared himself liberated from the right, he adamantly declared that Republicans would never go to conference on the Senate bill, essentially reassuring conservatives that he would not allow Republicans to get lured into dreaded compromise talks on immigration. Now Cole is opening the door by explicitly saying that on immigration, Boehner wants votes on GOP measures, and that some sort of compromise between “both sides” is possible in the wake of the budget deal.

This suggests GOP leaders may perceive a shift in the politics of immigration inside their own caucus. Indeed, Major Garrett, who is well connected among Republicans, is reporting that such a shift is underway. Garrett points out that Paul Ryan is also expressing a renewed interest in the immigration debate, which is telling, because Ryan’s championing of the budget deal ended up winning over a surprisingly large bloc of House Republicans, despite intense criticism from the right. As Garrett put it, GOP leaders may no longer be “fearful of the internal or external politics of immigration reform. Quite the contrary. Ryan held fast on the budget and he and Boehner are both still standing, arguably stronger than at any time since 2010.”

If Garrett is right, immigration reform will be the next big test of Boehner’s and Ryan’s effort to reassert control over the House GOP by warding off the forces who oppose compromise at all costs. Cole’s comments are consistent with that.

Now here’s the big caveat. If votes on those four Judiciary-passed immigration measures (which deal with things like guest workers and E-Verify, but not the 11 million) are really going to happen this spring, presumably after primaries, the question is how far Republicans are willing to go. If the game plan is to pass a few piecemeal measures, to appear to be acting, and then tell the Senate to take them or leave them, then we’re not getting anywhere. But if passing those measures can set in motion a kind of Ping-Pong with the Senate that ultimately leads House Republicans to vote on their own version of legalization for the 11 million, that could conceivably set in motion a process that could lead to comprehensive reform.

“Cole’s comments are a really good signal that they’re going to bust a move in 2014,” Frank Sharry, the head of pro-immigration America’s Voice, tells me. “The question is, are they going to try to get something real passed, or are they setting up a blame game?” That this question is now operative is itself a step forward.

* WHAT THE LATEST OBAMACARE DELAY MEANS: Last night, the administration abruptly relaxed Obamacare’s rules for millions who have had plans cancelled, saying they can get catastrophic coverage or even be exempt from the individual mandate, an apparent effort to calm Democratic lawmakers upset about cancellations. Ezra Klein explains what this means in political terms:

This puts the first crack in the individual mandate. The question is whether it’s the last. If Democratic members of Congress see this as solving their political problem with people whose plans have been canceled, it could help them stand against Republican efforts to delay the individual mandate. But if congressional Democrats use this ruling as an excuse to delay or otherwise de-fang the individual mandate for anyone who doesn’t want to pay for insurance under Obamacare, then it’ll be a very big problem for the law.

As Klein says, relatively few people may end up availing themselves of this new loophole, but in substantive terms, this latest move seems hard to defend. As for whether Dems will take new steps to weaken the law, I don’t expect they will, but that will probably depend on how well it works over time. Of course, that has always been the rub.

* GOP POUNCES ON OBAMACARE DELAY: The statement just out from GOP Rep. Eric Cantor signals where things are going — Republicans will use the news to call for an across the board delay of the individual mandate:

“Republicans have consistently asked for a one year delay of the mandates for all Americans, and put forward a proposal to allow American families to keep their health plans. The White House actions clearly prove ObamaCare can’t work as designed. It’s time for ObamaCare to be delayed for all.”

The question is whether any Dems will feel tempted to go along with this.

* OBAMACARE POLLING NUMBERS STILL IN THE TOILET: The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll finds that the health law is still polling terribly, with only 34 percent viewing it favorably, while 48 percent view it unfavorably.  However, repeal is still a minority position: 42 percent want to get rid of it, versus 43 percent who want to keep or expand it.

This is the first time since the summer of 2012 that repeal has been statistically tied with “keep and expand.” But this comes at an absolute low point for the law, which suggests repeal will remain a less popular position, particularly if the law works over time. As always, if it doesn’t, all bets are off.

* DEMS PUSHING POSITIVE OBAMACARE STORIES: Meanwhile, Dems are circulating stories out of the states, such as these from Arkansas, of people having positive experiences with the now-functional Obamacare website. The Arkansas example is key, because the state set up its own version of the Medicaid expansion — rather than use the one in the law — and it’s being viewed as a template for other states that might want to do the same. So success here could bode well for other versions elsewhere.

* GOOD ECONOMIC NEWS: This is a pleasant surprise:

The U.S. economy grew at a solid 4.1% annual rate from July through September, the fastest pace since late 2011 and significantly higher than previously believed. Much of the upward revision came from stronger consumer spending.

Worth asking: Could the economy matter more than Obamacare in the 2014 elections?

* WILL OBAMA EMBRACE NSA REFORM? Peter Baker has an interesting look at the various pressures on the President as he decides whether to embrace his panel’s recommendations for broad reform of NSA bulk surveillance. This, from an unnamed adviser, gets to the heart of the matter:

“On the one hand, the president’s own personal instincts are reasonably civil libertarian in general and that in his heart of hearts he resonates with the call for more aggressive protection of privacy and individual liberty. On the other hand, my sense is that like every president, when he finds himself ultimately responsible for the safety of the nation, the stakes get raised in ways one can barely imagine.”

But this is the sort of thing Obama used to dismiss as a false choice. My sense is Obama will mostly embrace the recommendations; failure to do so would be to leave behind a legacy that has not accomplished what he himself has claimed is a paramount goal: resetting the proper balance between security and liberty.

* AND SNOWDEN MADE ALL OF THIS HAPPEN: David Sanger’s excellent piece on what NSA reform would really mean contains this choice nugget:

While few in the White House want to admit as much in public, none of this would have happened without the revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor now in asylum in Russia. While Mr. Obama has said he welcomes the debate about the proper limits on the N.S.A., it is not one he engaged in publicly until the Snowden revelations began. Now the president has little choice.

Whatever you think of Snowden, this affair really has reminded us that journalistic revelations, combined with sustained pressure from a small but persistent group of lawmakers and advocates, can bring us to the cusp of reform.

What else?