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John Boehner’s next big test: Immigration

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Updated at 11:01 a.m.

President Obama delivered remarks Thursday morning to renew his call for Congress to pass sweeping immigration reform. The prevailing sentiment in Washington is that it's not going to happen this year, and may not even happen next year.

But because of the last few weeks, it just might get done by early next year. It's all up to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who by political necessity, must now at least consider leaning in more on immigration.

"Let's see if we can get this done. And let's see if we can get it done this year," Obama said at the White House.

Fresh off a decisive defeat in the budget and debt ceiling showdown that cost the GOP big and won the party no major policy concessions from Democrats, Boehner was asked Wednesday about whether he plans to bring up immigration legislation during the limited time left on the 2013 legislative calendar. He didn't rule it out.

"I still think immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed. And I'm hopeful," said Boehner.

The big question is whether the speaker's hopefulness spurs him to press the matter legislatively or whether the cast-iron conservative members who oppose even limited reforms will dissuade him and extinguish his cautiously optimistic if noncommittal outlook.

Months ago, as House Republicans were slow-walking immigration after the Senate passed a broad bill, the latter possibility appeared the likelier bet. But times have changed. The position House Republicans adopted in the fiscal standoff badly damaged the party's brand. The GOP is reeling, searching desperately for a way to turn things around. That means Boehner, too, must look for ways to repair the damage.

And that's where immigration comes in. Even before the government shutdown showdown, a vocal part of the GOP (think Sen. John McCain) had been talking up the urgent need to do immigration reform or risk further alienating Hispanic voters. Now, amid hard times for the party driven by deeper skepticism from Democrats, independents and even some Republicans following the fiscal standoff, the political imperative is arguably even stronger.

The policy imperative already exists for some House Republicans -- perhaps enough of them that if Boehner allowed a vote, reform of some type could pass with a majority of House Democrats and a minority of House Republicans, as did last week's deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. (What specifically could pass and whether Obama could accept it is another question.)

What's not clear is whether Boehner would be willing to chart a path with less than majority GOP support again so soon after the last time and without his back against the wall as it was in the fiscal standoff.

This much we know: The White House and Senate Democrats will keep applying pressure on Boehner to act on immigration. Obama's remarks are the latest example of his plan. The speaker will be feeling external and internal pressure to move ahead on immigration.

But he will also feel pressure from conservatives to oppose it. Here's the thing, though: Boehner listened to the right flank of his conference in the fiscal fight, and that path was politically destructive for his party. That's enough to believe he will at least entertain the possibility of tuning the hard-liners out a bit more this time around.

All of which is why it's too soon to cross immigration off the "maybe it will still get done" list just yet.


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'"Stung by a Twitter renegade, group in Obama administration launched sting of its own" -- David Nakamura, Anne Gearan and Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"Vegetarian M.B.A. Beside G.O.P. Conservative" -- Ashley Parker, New York Times