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Trust between John Boehner and his Republican Caucus members has worn so thin that he’s been forced to swat down rumors (again) this week that he’s retiring, while conservatives worry the speaker is plotting to pull a fast one on them in the immigration reform debate.
Of the 234 Republicans in the House, just 20 percent reliably support the speaker, according to a recent Washington Post analysis. And a new poll shows that among Republican voters overall, just 37 percent think GOP leaders are taking the party in the right direction, while 52 percent say leadership is going the wrong way. Compare that to 72 percent of Democrats who favor their party leadership’s approach. And all this comes on the heels of the Farm Bill debacle, the latest in a string of legislative misjudgments for Boehner and his leadership team.
But nowhere is the divide between leadership and base more apparent than on immigration reform, where conservative House members and outside activists are now worried that Boehner will actively deceive them through procedural trickery to pass his alleged ”amnesty” agenda. Never mind that it’s not even clear Boehner really wants a comprehensive bill passed. He said Sunday that immigration isn’t his top priority (though he also said, “If I come out and say I’m for this and I’m for that, all I’m doing is making my job harder”). And never mind that Boehner has repeatedly pledged to stick to the “Hastert Rule,” the informal rule that nothing be given a vote unless it already has support from a majority of Republicans.
But some House conservatives are convinced that Boehner is planning a secret “gambit to save [the] amnesty agenda,” as the conservative news site TownHall explained yesterday. When the House and Senate pass different versions of the same bill, lawmakers meet in a bicameral Conference Committee, where they hash out the differences and produce a single final bill. The Senate has already passed a bill with a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The House has not passed anything, in part because conservatives fear that Boehner will use it as a backdoor way to introduce “amnesty” into the final bill.
TownHall explained that “the worry among Capitol Hill conservatives was that Boehner would take any House-passed bill with the word ‘immigration’ in it and set up a conference that would produce a bill with the trappings of compromise,” but would really be something unacceptable to the right. Conservative firebrands like Rep. Steve Stockman and Steve King have already raised the alarm. Ann Coulter told Fox News, “If they pass a bill that does nothing but enforce e-verify, does nothing but enforce the fence, it will go into conference with the Senate and it will come out an amnesty bill.” “Ann Coulter got it exactly right,” an unnamed senior aide to a conservative lawmaker told Breitbart News. “We are scared to death of what we figure is already Boehner’s end game.”
What these conservatives seem to miss is that the House would still need to pass whatever comes out of the conference committee. And the only way a pathway to citizenship will pass after the conference, as now, is if conservative Republicans allow it, or if Boehner is willing to break the Hastert rule and let it pass with Democratic votes. But he’s already said: “For any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House, It’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of the majority of our members.”
If Boehner went back on that pledge, he’d face open revolt in his caucus, just as he would if he broke it now to bring the Senate bill up for a vote (which would likely pass with Democratic votes). Boehner has also so far done everything he can to avoid a revolt, considering his speakership would be on the line, and there’s no reason to think he’d be any more willing to risk it in a few months, after a conference committee, than he is now.
Perhaps it’s that conservatives don’t trust themselves to recognize secret “amnesty” in a conference bill. Breitbart’s Matt Boyle warned that the report would only “get a short amount of time for actual review, and votes would be whipped up and sold using talking points just like how the Senate bill passed,” as if talking points are some kind of Jedi mind tricks. But if a conferenced bill contained a pathway to citizenship and they vote for it, that’s on them, especially given their “read the bill” rhetoric.
Worse yet for Boehner, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Immigration reform will come to a head after the August recess, just as the debate ramps up on the debt ceiling, another issue which will inevitably pit Boehner against his rank-and-file. Maybe retirement will start to sound like a pretty good idea.
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.More Alex Seitz-Wald.