Politics & Policy

Speaker Boehner’s Piecemeal Problem

The right flank of the House GOP can prevent passage of piecemeal immigration bills.

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.

#ad#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.

#page#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.

#ad#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.

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