GOP's cynical political truce: What's really delaying immigration reform

Boehner and the president didn't work out an immigration deal. The truth behind a midterm cycle mutual cease-fire

Published July 1, 2014 4:33PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                    (Reuters/Larry Downing)
John Boehner (Reuters/Larry Downing)

Who knows what President Obama and Speaker Boehner really said to each other before the critical Tiger Woods summit at the White House last week.

According to a White House official, "Boehner formally told the president last week that the House will not move on immigration legislation" with votes this year. According to Boehner, "I told the president what I have been telling him for months: the American people and their elected officials don't trust him to enforce the law as written.  Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue." Maybe neither side is true. Maybe they talked about the big soccer tournament or told each other dirty jokes, over cigarettes.

And maybe they weren't able to cut an immigration deal, but implicitly or not, they cut a political deal on which both sides had something to gain. The system is working, just not in the way that helps anyone.

A deal is only reached when both sides have something to gain, and House Republicans had nothing to gain in a midterm election cycle by working out a comprehensive immigration reform package. Even when primary threats are in the past -- and they never really are; there's always another cycle just around the corner -- it would split the party and depress general election turnout for their side. And pro-immigration GOP donors, like the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, aren't withholding financial support for the party for slow-walking CIR. Why would House Republicans ever have bothered to consider CIR this year? Because they thought it might help the country? Easy, now.

House Republicans' decision to follow their immediate political incentive laid the groundwork for the non-compromise midterm compromise effectively made between Boehner and Obama: Obama would get to issue a base-pleasing executive order limiting deportations ahead of the election, while Boehner and Republicans would get to issue more base-pleasing hollerin' about the present-day King George III occupying the Oval Office, now materialized in the form of a lawsuit. Each side gets something it wants: an opportunity to rouse its kind ahead of the midterms, which is what midterms are all about.

This dynamic of the president's second term, in which the president will act in limited fashion through executive orders and the speaker will issue some hearty screams his way, is depressing, and yet each side seems almost... fine with it. Or at least clear-eyed that this is the only possible way to handle the last few years of cohabitation without truly embarrassing moments like further government shutdowns and debt ceiling crises. It's an order that TPM's Josh Marshall described well as "the long truce" in a recent piece:

On the one hand, President Obama has completely given up on legislating, which is really the only logical course available to him. He's now pursuing a reasonably ambitious agenda using a mix of executive orders and other executive prerogatives. The recent EPA carbon emission regulations aren't the climate legislation most Democrats wanted. But they are a remarkably ambitious step based on executive action alone.

The Republican response has been less to fight these moves as to incorporate them into their anti-Obama narrative as (light version) norm-breaking imperial president or (strong version) emerging Obama tyranny. Not that they won't fight them; they will. But the emphasis seems more on pocketing them as tools for motivating partisans than actually stymieing executive action - a decision no doubt rooted in the near impossibility of challenging the President legislatively since they'd need veto-proof majorities in both Houses. (The Courts, given SCOTUS's activist bent, may be another matter.) [...]

However you choose to describe it, both sides of the partisan divide are operating in their own political universe, on their own political turfs. And the most striking thing is that both seem content to keep it that way.

The only question is: how does this arrangement break, or does it not, ever? Perhaps it only breaks if there's a Republican president: Democrats were willing, at least compared to life under the Obama administration, to work with the last Republican president. It's a crap deal Democrats have: since they believe the government does have the occasional responsibility to pass legislation to address problems, they'll work with Republican presidents; since Republicans don't, they'll never work with Democratic presidents, while the fluctuations of the political mood inevitably return the presidency to them anyway.

It never made much sense to hold out hope for the GOP to move on comprehensive immigration reform in a midterm election cycle. It probably won't happen early next year, either, but there's a better chance of it happening then than there is now! If Republicans win the Senate, and can craft a bill on their own terms, and party leaders can sell it to the base by saying "we need to do this in order to beat Hillary Clinton," well, maybe. But don't hold your breath. It's going to take another seven or so consecutive presidential election defeats before House Republicans work with a Democratic president on this issue. For now, cynical but mutually acceptable base-checking carries the day.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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