Ever since the Senate passed the Gang of Eight immigration bill, attention has turned to the House, where the press and everyone else involved has gone to elaborate lengths to divine what the GOP will do on the issue.
Among the ten or so major players on the issue, there are subtle distinctions in their views, motivations, and incentives that could end up shaping the results of the debate. Here’s a guide to the key members of the Republican leadership:
Speaker John Boehner
Less than 48 hours after the election results came in on November 6, Boehner set the tone for his immigration stance, telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer the issue “has been around far too long” and “I think a comprehensive approach is overdue.”
It was the first of many signals from Boehner that enacting an immigration-reform law is one of his top priorities, if not his No. 1 concern. For example, in January, he inadvertently revealed the existence of the secretive bipartisan Gang of Seven in the House for the first time when his remarks from a private Q&A at the Ripon Society were put online. In April, the Gang’s founding Republican member, Representative Sam Johnson of Texas, said Boehner “asked” him to lead the negotiations.
Boehner says in public that his motivation is to fix a “broken” system. But in private, he’s more blunt about the politics of the issue. In his remarks to open the big “special conference” meeting July 10, Boehner warned colleagues that doing nothing would leave the party vulnerable to withering attacks.
Thus, conservatives fear, and liberals hope, that Boehner might violate the so-called Hastert rule, as he’s done with several other key bills this Congress, on immigration legislation — allowing, say, the Senate bill to pass with mostly Democratic votes.
But there are also several other factors driving the distrust.
In the last Congress, Boehner repeatedly sought to negotiate a big deficit-reduction deal with President Obama, sometimes even leaving his top lieutenant, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in the dark about what he was up to. And long after most House Republicans had lost faith they could strike such a deal with Obama, Boehner kept up hope, and kept talking to the president.
“It’s failed twice. Twice. Get over it,” a frustrated GOP lawmaker told Roll Call in December 2011.
In private conversations, many Boehner skeptics cite what they believe to be the Ohio Republican’s underlying motivation: “legacy shopping,” as one aide puts it. More charitably, Boehner places great weight on the responsibility he has as speaker to leave the House, and his party, in better shape than when he took over.
Discussions about how Boehner will be viewed in the history books have been prompted by rumors sweeping K Street and Capitol Hill that he plans to retire at the end of this Congress. The chatter was so prevalent that Boehner recently convened close lobbyist friends to reassure them he planned to run for reelection.
But the idea drives Boehner allies nuts. “Totally ridiculous! Totally 100 percent false. Anybody saying that obviously doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says Representative Devin Nunes, a friend of the speaker. “The idea that he would want to quote-unquote burnish his legacy by passing Obama’s immigration bill is just flat stupid,” says a GOP leadership aide.
Regardless of what drives him, Boehner has made airtight promises to uphold the Hastert rule on immigration — even when voting on a bill produced in conference committee — that will box him in. And as the debate has progressed, he’s declined to take stands on key aspects of the debate, saying his role is only to facilitate the discussion.
“Where I once thought maybe he would use some elbow grease or some muscle to get something done, I now take him at his word. He’d like to get something done and he doesn’t know how, which he said famously a few weeks ago, and now he’s saying, ‘I’m just a facilitator.’ Okay, I get it. You’re a facilitator! It’s going to be up to others to figure out how to get it done,” says Frank Sharry, the president of America’s Voice and a top proponent of comprehensive immigration reform.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor
Cantor’s moves on immigration have to be seen through the lens of his larger effort to soften the GOP’s image with voters, a process that he has branded “making life work for more people.”
Though he voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, which provides legalization for illegal aliens brought to the U.S. as children, Cantor revealed in his inaugural “making life work” speech at the American Enterprise Institute that he wanted to address the problem.