On Immigration, Proceed at Your Own Risk

by Fred Bauer
If House leaders push comprehensive reform too hard, they’ll be ex-leaders.

Idaho Republican representative Raul Labrador is well respected by many of his conservative House colleagues, and he has expressed support for some kind of immigration reform in the past. Now, however, he has turned decisively against pushing any big immigration package under the current political and economic circumstances. In a Roll Call interview on Tuesday, he escalated his criticism of the House Republican leadership’s efforts on immigration (among other issues), saying that John Boehner should lose his speakership if he pushes through an immigration bill.

Labrador’s comments not only show how strongly many Republicans oppose the Obama immigration agenda; they also cast light on the threat to members of the House leadership if they continue to support an immigration package. By fracturing House Republicans, a leadership push on immigration could lead to changes in leadership — and disrupt succession plans in the wake of a potential Boehner retirement.

Despite pronouncements of its death, the Obama immigration agenda seems to have some fight left in it. Earlier this week, the speaker’s office released a “Q&A” on the House leadership’s immigration principles that sounds eerily similar to statements by the Senate Gang of Eight: how the immigration system is seriously flawed, how the current situation amounts to “amnesty,” how the House principles do not support “amnesty,” and so forth. Meanwhile, there are reports that key House Republicans are in talks with Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) on immigration. Some have speculated that Speaker Boehner is planning to retire from Congress soon, a situation that decreases his accountability to the electorate and to his fellow House Republicans. This gives him more latitude to work with the White House to pass a major immigration package (or so the speculation goes).

If Speaker Boehner is indeed looking forward to some rounds of post-congressional golf, his top deputies will have their hearts set on higher congressional posts. If Majority Leader Eric Cantor wants to become speaker after Boehner’s retirement, he will need a fairly unified caucus behind him to ward off any intra-party challenges. After Newt Gingrich resigned the speakership in 1998, it was Dennis Hastert rather than Majority Leader Dick Armey who became speaker. California’s Kevin McCarthy, currently the party’s whip, faces a similar challenge if he hopes to become majority leader. After all, John Boehner became majority leader in 2006 by defeating then-whip (and interim majority leader) Roy Blunt.

So if House Republican leadership does push through a controversial and flawed immigration package, it could put not only Boehner’s speakership at risk but also the efforts of Cantor and McCarthy to climb the rungs of leadership. Labrador’s comments on Tuesday suggest how real this possibility is, and Cantor evidently considers the threat to be legitimate. A Politico story last week quoted sources saying that he had “serious concerns” about moving forward on immigration, and in his appearance on Face the Nation last Sunday, he tried repeatedly to shift away from a discussion of the House leadership’s immigration principles. There are some signs, then, that Cantor does not want to be too closely identified with the immigration push.

But as the House leadership escalates its efforts to pass an immigration package, Cantor and McCarthy risk becoming tied to this package — and to a potential falling-out with the base and center-right. Congressman Labrador’s remarks imply that, within the House, there is a real willingness to challenge the current leadership if it fails to live up to conservative principles.

On The Tonight Show recently, Speaker Boehner said that “a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.” In the face of growing outrage, the speaker’s top deputies may find that following through on the “principles” offered by House leadership is a walk to a political and policy dead end. Corporate lobbyists may be indifferent to the grass-roots anger over the House immigration principles, but many Republicans in Congress are paying attention.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.

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