From the moment John Boehner ascended to the House speakership after the 2010 elections, there was broad agreement that his chance to leave a mark on history depended upon securing a “grand bargain” with President Obama and Democrats to cut the deficit and entitlement spending. Boehner’s pursuit of this goal, driven by his party’s right wing, prompted several near-shutdowns of the government, the near-default on the national debt in 2011, and last December’s fiscal cliffhanger. Another crisis could come this fall, when the debt ceiling will have to be raised again.
But Boehner’s legacy no longer rests on securing a grand bargain that simply isn’t going to be struck. The deficit is falling dramatically, Republicans won’t consider additional tax revenue, and Standard and Poor’s just upgraded its outlook on US debt, reducing what little urgency there was to reach a deal.
Instead, Boehner’s legacy will hinge on immigration reform. It’s the only accomplishment of any significance still feasible given Washington’s chronic sclerosis. It serves both parties’ interests, even if some Republicans object vehemently to it. Democrats need to deliver for Latinos, a vital constituency, while Republicans may not be able to win the White House without expanding their appeal to this rapidly growing community. “We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned on Sunday. And, unlike debt reduction, which Boehner cannot achieve without the blessing of his caucus, immigration reform will probably present him with a chance to act alone. He’ll be the pivotal figure.
Here’s how it will likely unfold: Sometime around July 4, the Senate will pass an immigration-reform bill, possibly by a large majority. If the majority is big enough, the House may move to take it up; if not, Republicans may introduce their own bill or, more likely, a series of smaller bills. Senate Democrats have insisted on a single, all-encompassing measure to ensure that popular reforms like increasing the number of H-1B visas cannot be decoupled from less popular initiatives, such as granting legal status and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Many Republicans would prefer to break up the Senate bill so that they can be for the popular stuff and against the rest.
Boehner may give them that chance. But assuming the House passes something — even piecemeal reforms lacking Democratic support — it will have to be reconciled with whatever the Senate passes in a conference committee. Perhaps House Republicans will revolt and simply refuse to consider anything they object to. But having pushed a bill through the House, it’s hard to believe they’ll walk away, enraging Latinos and Senate Republicans alike, and shoulder the blame for killing immigration reform.
At this point, all eyes will turn to Boehner and the decision he must confront. Throughout his speakership, Boehner has mostly insisted on adhering to the “Hastert rule,” so named because his predecessor, Dennis Hastert, didn’t like bringing bills to the floor for a vote unless a majority of his party in the House supported them. Boehner may get a majority for a Republican-written immigration bill. But he almost certainly won’t find one willing to pass anything resembling what the Senate will pass.
Boehner’s choice — and his legacy — will come down to the question of whether or not he is willing to waive the Hastert rule. If he does, Democrats will surely provide enough votes to get the final bill through the House and onto the president’s desk. His party should then be able to get a hearing among Latinos turned off by the nativist attacks and calls to “self-deport” that suffused the last campaign.
But breaking with his caucus on a matter of first principles will infuriate the absolutists — and could well cost Boehner his speakership. Already, conservative groups such as Heritage Action are pushing to block his path by codifying the Hastert rule.
Anyone who followed the tortuous budget battles of the last few years must find it more than a little odd that, after all that, Boehner’s legacy will rest on what he decides to do about immigration reform. Still, it’s fitting that the stakes should be so high. Survive and be forgotten? Or save his party and risk being cast out? His decision will determine his own fate, along with the fate of millions of others.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.