Is Boehner getting serious on immigration reform? New hire intrigues.

House Speaker John Boehner has hired a bipartisan policy adviser who has already put forward a recipe for getting immigration reform through the House.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
A group of people from Arizona with undocumented parents gather to pray outside the office of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio on Capitol Hill in Washington in October. They might applaud Mr. Boehner's new immigration policy expert.

For those reading the tea leaves on Capitol Hill, Tuesday provided a potentially startling message: Maybe immigration reform isn't dead, after all.

In the months since the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform in June, the House has not done much of anything except say that the Senate bill isn't going anywhere. House Republicans have vowed to take up immigration reform, piece by piece, as opposed to in a single bill, like the Senate.

But when will that happen? Not any time soon, it seemed.

Then came the news Tuesday that House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio had hired Rebecca Tallent as his policy adviser on immigration.

Though not well-known outside the Beltway, Ms. Tallent is a known quantity on the Hill – and that at least appears to make her hiring a statement of intent from the speaker. 

Before moving a few blocks to Mr. Boehner’s shop, Tallent directed the immigration task force at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank. Yes, bipartisan. She served as chief of staff for Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and also helped him draft measures to overhaul immigration when he and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts tackled the issue in 2007. Before that, she worked for former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona, another longtime advocate of immigration reform.

She is a potential bridge-builder whose political experience with immigration is extensive. Moreover, her recipe for moving immigration reform forward is hardly a secret. Her November commentary for the Monitor, titled “Immigration reform: the politics of the possible,” is a virtual road map on how to revive an effort that many consider dead – certainly not possible in this political climate or as Congress heads into an election year.

First, she lays out the political realities. This conservative House will not respond to conventional political pressure. It won’t respond to pressure from the Senate (which it sees as too patronizing, too Democrat, and mistaken in a bill that numbers in the thousands of pages). Neither will it respond to the much-heard cry that the House must act if it wants to win the Hispanic vote. Most House Republicans represent gerrymandered districts with small Latino populations. They are more concerned about getting “primaried” by tea partyers than pilloried by Latinos.

Immigration reform in the House must be “sold on its merits” as an urgent need, she says.

Interestingly, that is exactly how House Budget Committee Chairman (and former Republican vice presidential candidate) Paul Ryan recently described it.

Last month, when Mr. Ryan appeared at a Wall Street Journal forum, he stated that the House is “serious” about immigration reform because it’s a “pro-growth” strategy that, if left unaddressed, denies the country of its “intellectual capital.” The issue has been pushed aside not for lack of interest, he said, but for lack of time, given the government shutdown and budget and other negotiations this fall.

Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon says Republicans will most likely take up reform “later next year.” It's a significant statement – as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Representative Walden's job is to make sure Republicans win as many House seats as possible in 2014.

What Tallent suggests in her opinion article is a step-by-step process rather than a comprehensive reform – an approach President Obama has recently said he would consider. Then she suggests agreeing on a structure for that reform, presumably what the pieces would be and in what order they would come.

Republicans and Democrats actually agree on three broad principles “that the United States needs to secure its borders, that future immigrants must have legal avenues to enter the country, and that the nation must deal with the status of undocumented individuals who are already here,” she writes.

Of course, the reasons for Congress to fail are legion. The House speaker has a hard time herding his cats, and getting them to line up on this topic will be difficult. Likewise, Mr. Obama would have a tough time moving Democrats to compromise further.

A House road map to reform could crash over the details to be worked out, especially the core disagreement over the Senate’s “path to citizenship” for America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Fox News greeted the news of Tallent's hiring with the headline: "Boehner accused of tilting toward 'amnesty' with new hire."

But in his Wall Street Journal appearance, Ryan outlined a road map on that topic that, while considerably longer and more laborious than the Senate version, is not “no” to eventual citizenship.

Last, the closer Congress gets to the midterm elections in November 2014, the harder it will be to reach a deal.

Or will it?

Both Republicans and Democrats have experienced a traumatic political setback: the GOP with the government shutdown and the Democrats with the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. They will each be looking for an accomplishment to run on.

Perhaps immigration could be it.

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