WASHINGTON — The Senate provided the country a rare and modest glimpse of bipartisanship in its 68-32 passage of the comprehensive immigration reform bill laboriously accomplished by the Gang of Eight — four Democrats and four Republicans. But overcoming the rigid and obstructionist partisanship of the House Republicans will be another matter.
House Speaker John Boehner, like a chief lemming leading his followers over a cliff, warned in advance of that Senate vote, in which 14 Republicans broke party ranks, that his flock would continue its obdurate ways on the politically explosive immigration issue.
“For any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House,” Boehner proclaimed, “it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of the majority of our members.” He obviously was referring to the GOP side alone, as if the House Democrats weren’t members of what senators call “the other body.”
It’s a party position that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert often insisted upon in his abbreviated tenure. It was designed to assure that the House Republicans would work their will on the full House in an our-way-or-the-highway invitation to stalemate.
Boehner in adhering to this posture endangers not only the prospect for meaningful immigration reform. He also jeopardizes his party’s political outlook in 2014 and 2016 and his own speakership. He continues to genuflect before the most conservative House Republicans, driven by Tea-Party recalcitrance, who nevertheless increasingly favor his disposal.
The 14 Senate Republicans apparently hope their support of the bipartisan compromise will ameliorate their party’s problem with Hispanic voters, so graphically demonstrated by their 70 percent vote against GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney in 2012. But the Senate version, heavy on fattened border security but allowing a path to American citizenship for undocumented aliens, will mean little politically if their House brethren refuse to buy into key elements of it.
President Obama did not hesitate to goad the House Republicans to follow the lead of the small band of Senate Republicans who followed GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Marco Rubio of Florida in getting off the naysay trail for once.
In all the Republican post-mortems after the Romney defeat, a deafening chorus was heard arguing that the party should address the wide loss of Hispanic, Asian and African-American voters in the 2012 election. Boehner, an astute and practical politician, surely got the message, but appears throttled by the Tea-Party constituency that now dominates his flock.
Until the 14 Senate Republicans cast their votes for the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform package, conservatives in both houses had at least the comfort of knowing they were all in the same boat. The challenge for Boehner, after one-third of the Senate Republican membership voted with the Democrats, is to prevent further leakage in his foundering House craft.
Obama and fellow Democrats, frustrated throughout the president’s first term by Republican congressional roadblocks, are looking to next year’s midterm elections to break the jam, expecting enhanced support from minority voters. The same elections could likewise determine Boehner’s political future if he continues to allow the most extreme elements of his constituency of the right to set a stubborn and resistant course to genuine immigration reform.
At a minimum, Boehner needs to get off his insistence that the House must and will go its own way on the issue, writing a package that can capture “a majority of the majority” membership. Such an outcome will only end in negating a rare example of Senate bipartisanship achieved in a Congress that once marked its most productive and laudatory days under both Democratic and Republican presidents.,
Last November, the Republican brand suffered a body blow with a presidential campaign that only reinforced its image as the party of the white and the well-off. The continuing fight over immigration reform can be a GOP opportunity to combat that view, but not unless Boehner and Co. seize it as their 14 Senate brethren have done.
(Jules Witcover’s latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)