For border security, Boehner could hope to garner votes from “Blue Dog” Democrats in rural, conservative districts — although there aren’t many of them after the 2010 bloodbath. This type of situation has happened before. In June 2012, for example, there was a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. The National Rifle Association decided to score the bill, which put tremendous pressure on the Blue Dogs and other vulnerable Democrats to vote for it. Seventeen of them did. Even if Pelosi whips hard, Boehner may be able to rely on a similar number of Democrats for a border-security bill, but not many more.
Other piecemeal bills in the pipeline, such as one to increase the number of visas available to high-skill workers, could appeal to the New Democrat coalition, which includes a lot of lawmakers who represent wealthy suburban districts, many with significant technology-industry presences. About 30 such Democrats have voted for related STEM-visa bills in the past year. But if Republicans tinker too much, this group could easily decide to back away.
If the Republican leadership is lucky, about 30 Democrats will be there for Boehner when he brings the various piecemeal bills to the floor. That gives him room for 47 Republicans to jump ship before a bill is defeated. Or, if a smaller group, say 17 Democrats, votes for a bill, then Boehner can afford 34 GOP defections. If no Democrats vote for the bill, a mere 17 GOP defections could defeat it.
Boehner should hope for 30 Democrats, since a growing number of conservatives are anxious about the leadership, and it’s doubtful that many of them would go along with Boehner’s plan of action. Over 50 Republicans signed a letter circulated by Representative Steve King of Iowa forcing the “special conference” meeting held last week, and 62 Republicans initially voted against the recent farm bill.
The precedent for opposition goes even further. Earlier in the year, 66 Republicans voted against the Budget Control Act, and 151 Republicans voted against the fiscal-cliff deal. Around 25 Republicans were involved in a coup plot on Boehner in January. A dozen voted for someone else.
Of course, most of those episodes were spending-related fights, so the votes aren’t perfectly applicable. Representative Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the immigration subcommittee in the Judiciary Committee and a rising star of the conference, told Bloomberg’s Al Hunt that 85 percent of House Republicans support passing some legislation. That’s 35 Republicans opposed to anything, which means 20 Democrat votes would be needed to pass a bill. But the situation is still fluid.
One significant moment will be when Heritage Action for America decides whether to score the bills. The group’s spokesman, Dan Holler, tells me that it has made no decisions but that it is strongly concerned about what the outcome of a conference committee would be. The group will consider flagging piecemeal bills and warning House Republicans to oppose — or else risk the group’s wrath — any bill that directly or indirectly could lead to a conference with the Senate.
Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, who recited from “America the Beautiful” in the special conference Wednesday to underscore his commitment to the rule of law, says he is still undecided on whether he will try to block any bill from passing the House. “Ultimately it will be a judgment call I will make, probably the day that we vote on the bill,” he says. “I’ll be looking at the commitments of leadership and how credible I believe those commitments to be.”
“I have to evaluate leadership commitments in the context of history,” he adds. “And the history is, we had a commitment that there would never be sequestration. Well? Lo and behold, the commitment was made to get votes from the House Armed Services Committee, and we still have sequestration. We’ve had commitments to, as best as possible, abide by the Hastert rule. Yet this year, we’ve already had five bills pass where the liberal wing of the Republican conference joined with Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Democrats to pass legislation.”
At Wednesday’s conference meeting, Boehner said it was politically imperative for the House to make its own immigration effort because otherwise the GOP would be vulnerable to withering attacks. Most House Republicans seem to agree, but a small minority of them could doom the effort.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @j_strong.