Is immigration reform primed for a big comeback?

John Boehner says he's hopeful immigration reform can get done, but his restive caucus may have other plans

The Dream Coalition
(Image credit: (Alex Wong/Getty Images))

In June, the Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan bill that, if signed into law, would represent the largest overhaul of the nation's immigration system in a generation.

However, the House has sat on the bill since, with many Republicans resistant to broad reforms they view as tantamount to "amnesty for illegals." Though President Obama has tried to pivot to immigration since the conclusion of the government shutdown, Republicans remain as noncommittal as ever, leaving the prospect of enacting meaningful immigration reform in doubt.

In a speech Thursday morning, Obama again framed immigration reform as a bipartisan issue, and he knocked the GOP for being obstructionists, saying Republicans operate from the position that "if Obama's for it, then I'm against it."

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"Anyone still standing in the way of this bipartisan reform should at least have to explain why," he said. "A clear majority of the American people think it's the right thing to do."

Indeed, polls have found Americans overwhelmingly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Two-thirds of voters support the Senate bill; eight in ten Americans favor a "pathway to citizenship"; and by wide margins, more Americans say they would blame Republicans (44 percent) than Democrats (14 percent) or Obama (21 percent) should Congress fail to reach an immigration deal, according to a July NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.

Republicans acknowledged in their 2012 post-mortem report that they needed to make inroads with minority voters. The combination of public opinion and electoral necessity, it would seem, should offer plenty of incentive for them to get on board with an issue dear to Latino voters.

But as the shutdown showed, hard-line Republicans — and even the GOP leadership — aren't always swayed by a bevy of unfavorable polling data. Even when the GOP's approval rating hit an all-time low, the House stood firm on the shutdown and debt ceiling fight until the very last minute.

That raises perhaps the most pressing question for immigration reform: Will Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) go along with it if it means burning the right wing of his caucus?

Boehner said this week he was "hopeful" immigration reform could get done. And with the GOP badly bruised by the shutdown fight, he could aim to repair the damage by embracing a popular bipartisan issue like immigration.

The "political imperative is arguably even stronger" for Boehner, wrote the Washington Post's Sean Sullivan, now that he's seen how badly the shutdown played out. The speaker's need to do some major damage control offers ample reason to "believe he will at least entertain the possibility of tuning the hard-liners out a bit more this time around."

Voters don't have much faith in the GOP's ability to lead, making it much easier for Democrats to press for concessions, as Obama did Thursday. If Republicans balk, Democrats will wind up with even more campaign fodder to label the GOP as the "party of no."

Then again, some conservatives, still sore over the shutdown defeat, are now even more reluctant to negotiate. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a prominent conservative backer of immigration reform, said "it would be crazy" and a "mistake" for the GOP to work with Obama on immigration after losing the shutdown fight.

Even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has backed off the bill he helped draft, blaming Obama for having "undermined" its odds of passing by refusing to negotiate with the GOP this month. (It should be noted that Rubio's support for reform has made him persona non grata with the base.)

All of that spells trouble for Republican lawmakers who could be vulnerable to a primary fight.

Still, immigration is at least on the House's radar. Though the GOP leadership hasn't embraced the Senate's single sweeping bill, lawmakers are already drafting piecemeal approaches to tackle their preferred aspects of immigration reform. And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the House GOP's point person on immigration, said the chamber should take up the issue, "the sooner the better."

Whether a piece by piece approach will go over with Democrats, though, will depend on what those pieces look like as a whole. Democrats have said they're open to such an approach, but only if the cumulative effect of the bills amounts to sweeping reforms — most crucially, the pathway to citizenship.

Assuming the furor over ObamaCare's glitchy website dies down in short order, immigration should emerge as the top issue in Washington, for no other reason than that the Democrats see it as a winning issue as the 2014 elections approach. How the GOP will respond depends, once again, on the party's intraparty feuding.

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