Boehner pitches immigration reform at GOP retreat, but not many takers

House Speaker John Boehner's principles for immigration reform, released Thursday, revived talk that a deal may be possible. While nothing has yet been decided, his caucus still appears to be deeply divided.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio addresses questions on immigration during a June 20, 2013, press conference. At a GOP retreat in Cambridge, Md., on Thursday, Boehner released a set of Republican principles for immigration reform, including a path to legal status for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

It was “open mike” for House Republicans discussing the contentious subject of immigration reform. Members, gathered on Thursday in a room at a Maryland resort for their annual retreat, formed three lines, each about 15 people deep. According to one participant at the private meeting, those who say it’s a bad idea to go ahead with immigration reform outnumbered those who favor moving forward by 3 to 1.

That would put House Speaker John Boehner in the minority – and may well mean that the House will not take up immigration reform in any substantial way this year.

The speaker’s leadership style is not to get ahead of his conference. The Ohio Republican certainly voices his opinion, as he did Thursday with his pitch that immigration reform is needed for jobs, the economy, and national security. And he tries to build consensus using tools such as a one-page set of immigration principles – a sort of sonar ping to see what kind of echo he gets from members.

Mr. Boehner's principles put tighter border security and interior enforcement first, and they allow for "legal status," though not citizenship, for some 11 million undocumented immigrants only after a set of conditions has been met. They even open a door to a path to citizenship for young people illegally brought to the US as children.

The principles prompted positive comment from some Democrats. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who helped draft the Senate immigration bill, said that a deal on immigration is "a real possibility," if House Republicans adopt the speaker's principles.

But this son of a bartender is actually not one to knock heads together. Rather, Boehner lets experience be the teacher. It’s more persuasive than he can ever be with such a large group, one that includes strong-willed tea partyers. If Americans disapprove of Republicans stalling on immigration reform – and no decisions have yet been made – voters will let them know.

That lesson was brought home to the speaker during the partial government shutdown last fall. Boehner warned his colleagues multiple times against trying to defund President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. When they didn’t listen, he went along with their brinkmanship. As he explained on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” recently: “You learn that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”

In fact, the lessons of the shutdown have modified behavior in the House. Chastened by Americans’ anger over the debacle, the GOP-controlled House this year approved a spending bill and a farm bill – despite resistance from conservatives who thought the bills too costly. “The school of hard knocks is a great educator,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert and political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

The key to understanding Boehner, says Mr. Pitney, is that he’s not Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker. Like a general with a battle plan, the outspoken congressman from Georgia marched his troops to a 1994 House takeover with promises outlined in a “Contract With America,” and then right into a ditch with government shutdowns in 1995 and 1995-96.

“Boehner observed Newt Gingrich for many years, and his rule of thumb is to ask ‘What would Newt do?’ and then do something else,” says Pitney. Boehner “saw how much trouble Gingrich courted through his leadership style,” which Pitney describes as “very directive.”

Today’s speaker often talks about his early days – growing up with 11 brothers and sisters, mopping floors and then tending bar for his father – as formative to his job because they taught him how to deal with all kinds of people. That’s important for someone who must round up 218 votes for any piece of legislation to pass. In his interview on "The Tonight Show," he likened the task to “trying to get 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow long enough to pass a bill.”

And so consensus-building is important to him. Boehner nudges, but he doesn’t coerce, and that’s appreciated by many in the Republican conference. “Our leadership ... is a listening leadership,” said Rep. Andy Barr, a GOP freshman from Kentucky, in an interview at the retreat. “That is a powerful leadership style because it’s not dictating from the speaker’s office, or from the leader’s office, or from the whip’s office.”

That style would be particularly meaningful for someone like Mr. Barr, who often votes along tea party lines. Indeed, what has frustrated Democrats in the House, and even moderate Republicans, has been Boehner’s willingness to accommodate uncompromising tea party positions. Uncharacteristically, the speaker blasted tea party supporters in December for advising the shutdown strategy – but even so, his criticism, at least publicly, was directed mainly at outside groups, not his members.

Tremendous pressure is on the speaker to move forward on immigration reform. It comes from the president, the Senate (which passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill last year), Democrats in the House, and the GOP-friendly business community. It also comes from those within his party who insist that Republicans must make serious efforts to win Hispanic voters – or face irrelevance as a political force in America.

Yet, this speaker knows he can’t “make” his conference do anything. As the retreat has borne out, House Republicans are a divided group, worried particularly about the timing for immigration reform legislation. Perhaps, some here concede, Republicans should embrace immigration reform, at least their own conservative version.

But even supporters of reform seem divided as to timing. Not now, was the strong message coming out of the retreat. Not when this issue will highlight splits in the party just as it heads to midterm elections – when Latinos are not a forceful factor in primary contests or in safe, Republican districts. Maybe punt this issue into 2015, or 2016, when the presidency is at stake and Republicans have to navigate the national stage.

Given what is known about the speaker, he is much more likely to follow his caucus than to buck it. If his members are wrong and he's right, well, time – and voters – will force a change.

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