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Speaker Boehner up at bat with immigration reform

After the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, House Speaker John Boehner is now at bat. Whether to swing is an incredibly tough call for him. Politically, the issue pits the long-term interests of the Republican Party against the short-term interests of its House members.

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House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill last month. He says the Senate immigration bill is a nonstarter in the House. Op-ed contributor John J. Pitney Jr. writes: 'There is a chance that House Republicans might accept' comprehensive reform if there is 'a strong “trigger” provision that would make legalization dependent on measurable progress' with enforcement.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/file

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House Speaker John Boehner is probably not looking forward to taking up immigration reform as Congress returns from its July 4 recess today.

On the merits, the issue is a mind-bender. Millions of people – and nobody knows exactly how many – have come to the United States without papers. Some arrived as infants and know no other country. Others immigrated as adults and have forged deep ties to the US through work and family. Deporting them all would entail daunting economic and moral costs. But giving them legal status might encourage even more illegal immigration by implying approval of law-breaking. And doing nothing would condemn them to a life sentence in a shadow economy.

For the speaker, the political calculus for his Republican majority is just as tough.

Immigration pits the long-term interests of the party against the short-term interests of many of its House members. In the long term, the GOP needs a good share of the burgeoning Hispanic vote in order to survive. If you’re a Republican House member, however, you aren’t worrying much about the future political needs of other members of your party. You’re worrying about the next election in your own district. Right now, most House Republicans do not have large Hispanic constituencies, but they all have to think about potential primary challenges. Republican primary voters tend to be deeply skeptical about comprehensive immigration reform, so the political incentives favor a hard line.

Although the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform by 68-32, and got some Republican votes, that outcome just serves to illustrate the differences between the chambers. Senators represent entire states and are more likely to have diverse constituencies. Serving six years instead of two, they have longer time horizons. And some of them – for instance, Republican Marco Rubio of Florida – are potentially eying presidential campaigns in which they will seek Hispanic support. By contrast, no current House members seem ready to run for president.

The bill got most of its votes from the Senate’s Democratic majority. Though GOP support was important, 32 of 46 Republicans still voted no. Accordingly, the Senate vote will have little political sway with the House’s Republican majority.

Speaker Boehner and the other top House Republicans must envy Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian party whip that Kevin Spacey plays on the television political series "House of Cards." Rep. Underwood can bully other lawmakers into submission and maneuver the White House into doing his bidding.

Real-world party leadership carries less clout than the Netflix version. Whereas Underwood has a vast supply of rewards and punishments, actual leaders have only limited power over such things as campaign contributions. Years ago, they could help members get appropriations for specific local projects, but the House has now banned the use of these earmarks.

Ironically, sincerity presents problems for congressional leaders. In Underwood’s TV world, it’s easy to buy people because everybody is for sale: even his wife’s environmental group is a scam. In reality, political motivations are a complex mix of self-interest and public interest. Many politicians on all sides of the immigration debate really believe in what they’re saying, so it’s hard to move them with political favors alone.

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What’s more, each side sincerely suspects the others of insincerity. Democrats think that nativism lurks beneath GOP concern for border security, while Republicans think that Democrats want to rush aliens into citizenship so that they can quickly become Democratic voters.

To have any chance of passing the Republican House and the Democratic Senate, a comprehensive immigration reform will have to do two things. The first is to provide undocumented immigrants with some way to legal status. The second is to strengthen border security so that legalization today does not invite further illegal immigration tomorrow.

The Senate bill tries to achieve both. It would put millions on a long path toward permanent residency or citizenship, making them pay fines and back taxes. It would also put new requirements on employers, augment the Border Patrol, and build hundreds of miles of border fence.

House Republicans think that approach lacks something important: a strong “trigger” provision that would make legalization dependent on measurable progress on the enforcement front.

Even the legalization-with-trigger approach would still be a tough sell, but there is a chance that House Republicans might accept it. Business – a key GOP constituency – is eager to settle the whole issue. Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office has reported that legalization would cut the deficit by billions, thanks to the taxes that legalized immigrants would pay.

Senators rejected an amendment to include a strong trigger. But might they tolerate it as part of a bargain with the House? That depends on whether the House can produce a bill that is tough enough to win a majority of Republicans yet generous enough to serve as a basis of negotiations with the other chamber.

Frank Underwood may never have to bother with such things, but it’s the main challenge facing John Boehner.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics."

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