Opinion

John Boehner's dilemma: Tea Party uprising or Latino uprising?

Eventually, the Republican Party will face one or the other

On immigration, Speaker John Boehner is caught between two unpleasant possibilities: A Tea Party uprising or a Latino uprising. Eventually, he's going to have to choose which presents a bigger risk to his party.

So far, all of his rhetoric and body language suggests he is trying to protect his House Republican caucus from a Tea Party uprising that would take out incumbents in Republican primaries, and perhaps himself from a challenge to his speakership.

Even though the Senate passed landmark immigration reform with a supermajority of 68 votes, Speaker Boehner is refusing to bring the Senate bill to the House floor. He is insisting the House pass its own legislation with "majority support of Republicans," a needless standard designed to produce a far more right-wing bill than the Democratic-led Senate can tolerate, increasing the chances of a deadlocked House-Senate negotiation.

If it even gets that far. Considering how House Republicans recently failed to come together to pass a farm bill, it's not a given the House can pass any immigration bill with Republican votes alone.

Failure to pass a final bill suits Tea Party Republicans just fine. But if Boehner buries a widely supported bipartisan Senate bill, the uprising he faces may be far worse.

On Sunday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told CNN, "This has the potential of becoming the next major civil rights movement. I could envision in the late summer or early fall if Boehner tries to bottle the bill up or put something in without a path to citizenship … I could see a million people on the Mall in Washington."

This is not idle musing. This has already happened.

In December 2005, the House passed legislation that would turn undocumented workers into felons. A wave of mass protests by Latinos swept the country the following spring, lasting for three months. Half a million poured into the streets of Los Angeles, and 400,000 marched in downtown Chicago. Seeing the strength of the Latino vote, the Senate quickly backed off of the House approach and in May 2006 passed an immigration bill providing a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.

Neither the House nor Senate bills became law. But back in 2006, with conservative Republicans controlling both chambers, gridlock was a win for the protesters. Today, with immigration advocates so close to winning historic reform, gridlock would be a devastating blow.

And if the highest-ranking Republican in the country was the clear roadblock, the Republican Party in general would be on the receiving end of visceral hatred, most likely voiced once again in the streets.

A wave of protests targeting Republicans that matched or surpassed the level of street heat generated in 2006 would be devastating to the Republican Party's attempts to win back the Latino votes that proved decisive to Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 victories. With the Latino share of the electorate continuing to rise — most ominously for Republicans, in their lone bastion of strength, the South — killing immigration reform could fast-track a demographic disaster that would condemn Republicans to minority status for a generation.

In the end, Boehner will have to decide which uprising he wants to face least: A Tea Party uprising that could spell personal defeats for himself and his friends, or a Latino uprising that could spell the end of the Republican Party.

If he takes the long view, he will recognize that his speakership won't last for long if his party crumbles all around him.

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