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Speaker Boehner’s Piecemeal Problem
The right flank of the House GOP can prevent passage of piecemeal immigration bills.


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Speaker John Boehner wants to pass a series of small bills dealing with immigration reform piece by piece, but it’s not clear whether 218 votes, the required number for passage, will be there for any of them.

Top Democrats are already signaling they’ll oppose the various bills being prepared by the GOP leadership, and conservative Republicans, especially, are wary. Many Republicans will prefer to simply vote against any bill, even if they agree with elements of the legislation, just to prevent Boehner from going to conference with the Senate. Such a conference, many conservatives fear, could lead to a consensus bill that includes amnesty.

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If Boehner can’t count on conservatives, he’ll need modest but significant help from Democrats for votes on the separate bills, which will likely come to the floor in the coming months. Most of the bills deal with issues such as E-Verify and border security. But the initial reaction from Democrats indicates they’ll help only for a price. Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats aren’t rushing to assist Boehner with his whip count. They say they will help Republicans pass the piecemeal bills only if Republicans promise to bring nearly all parts of the Senate-passed immigration bill, including a path to legalization, to the House floor.

“However you want to bring it to the floor, bring it to the floor, but understand how it leaves the floor has to be in a comprehensive form to go to conference,” Pelosi warned, in a recent interview with Talking Points Memo. “If you want individual votes on different sections, I think that’s an okay way to go, as long as the pieces are there — not just the things that we’ve seen come out of that caucus.”

But passing the flurry of bills that Pelosi prefers isn’t going to happen, at least in the near term, leadership aides say. For Boehner and other House GOP leaders, one of the key advantages of the piecemeal approach is that passing first a bill that deals exclusively with border security is relatively safe and easy and doesn’t even have to touch hot buttons like the path to citizenship.

Boehner also doesn’t have his conference ready to consider much beyond what the GOP has discussed on border security and enforcement. House Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte, for example, has only barely discussed a path to citizenship, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor is only starting to draft his own version of the DREAM Act. If anything related to a path to legalization hits the floor without a long vetting by House conservatives, a revolt will ensue.

Moreover, the idea of Boehner’s negotiating with Pelosi over how to proceed is implausible. It would telegraph weakness while also fueling suspicion by the GOP’s right flank about what the end result of the piecemeal strategy might be.

Meanwhile, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats have been gradually becoming a more muscular minority party, using the few levers of power they do have to make the GOP’s life more difficult. In the last Congress, Democrats repeatedly helped provide the votes for big-ticket items. More recently, they withdrew support for the farm bill, helping to tank it on the floor. And before final passage on a related version of the farm bill, they brought the whole chamber to a screeching halt with dramatic protests over how Republicans were proceeding.

It’s also not in the House Democrats’ political interest to help. The Senate Gang of Eight’s bill, especially with the backing of Marco Rubio, is a big stick with which to hit the House GOP in 2014 and beyond if the House GOP does nothing. Top House Democrats are already suspicious that Cantor and others are maneuvering to give Republicans political cover with the piecemeal bills — especially the GOP’s DREAM Act — rather than earnestly pursuing the enactment of a reform law. “There’s not a lot of trust there,” explains a Democratic leadership aide. For all those reasons, it’s very likely that Pelosi will be whipping against the piecemeal bills — just when Boehner may need them most.

Maintaining unity is generally easier in the minority, and Pelosi’s grip on her caucus is much stronger than Boehner’s on his conference. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be zero Democratic “yes” votes for, say, a border-security bill.



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