Immigration Reform 2013: Conservatives Convinced Boehner Ready To Sell Out After Budget Deal

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Boehner Pointing June 2013
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

A budget deal brokered by House Republicans and Senate Democrats is being viewed by proponents of comprehensive immigration reform as a positive sign of things to come next year.

The two-year budget deal agreed to by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is already being praised by Congressman Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a champion of immigration reform, who said it will take leaders’ commitment and willingness to compromise to pass an immigration bill.

The two budget leaders went to a conference in October to find common ground. Gutierrez believes that in similar fashion, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., should appoint a team to spearhead the 2013 immigration reform effort. With fiscal crises such as a government shutdown off their hands for the next two years, Gutierrez said the way is clear for lawmakers to focus on other issues like the economy, immigration reform and gun violence.

“I am still optimistic about the prospects for immigration reform in 2014 because immigration reform is easier than the budget,” Gutierrez said in statement. “There is much more consensus among voters and among members of Congress in both parties.”

The congressman said he believes, after talking with his Republican colleagues, that a “critical mass” wants a compromise. He admits, however, that the restructuring of America’s immigration system will be a heavy lift.

“It will still not be easy, but the polls, the policy, and the political winds all point towards action in 2014,” Gutierrez said. “We need to see the same level of commitment from House and Senate Leadership, the White House, and the continued push of the American people to move us to action and compromise on immigration reform. The budget deal gives me a sense of hope that compromise and progress are still possible in Washington.”

Clearing The Way For Immigration Reform?

It's not just Gutierrez who sees Republican compromise on a budget that includes setting spending levels above $1 trillion for the next two years -- a move that roils antispending conservatives -- as an indication that the GOP is ready to make similar moves on immigration.

During an interview on “The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd” on MSNBC Friday, Michael Needham, chief executive of the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action, made it known he's wary of that. “The speaker also wants to clear the way for immigration reform next year,” Needham said. “He’s been very clear about it.”

Perhaps the clearest indication that Boehner no longer wants to punt the immigration reform legislation is that he hired immigration policy expert Rebecca Tallent to lead his team. Opponents of reform, some of the same groups critical of the budget deal, wasted no time in voicing their discontent.

But it’s increasingly obvious Boehner is getting irritated by the constant criticism, some of which he believes holds no merit. According to him, these conservative groups “have lost all credibility.”

“It just comes to a point when some people step over the line,” Boehner told reporters on Thursday as he fought back the charge from conservatives and protected the budget agreement. “When you criticized something and you have no idea what you’re criticizing, it undermines your credibility.”

While some view this as a fight between more moderate Republicans and conservatives -- another schism in the often divided Republican Party -- Needham brushes it off as trying to have “a fact-based policy disagreement.”

Reform Not As Easy As Budget

Experts -- and even the brokers of the budget deal themselves -- will tell you that the budget committee deal lacks grand vision. With no major entitlement or tax reforms, some of the fiscal issues that continue to plague the nation persist. Ryan and Murray weren’t working toward a grand bargain. 

For some, comprehensive immigration reform requires just that, though: the equivalent of a fiscal grand bargain, with the will to tackle the big stuff, like a pathway to citizenship. That, to advocates, is the most important part of the debate. Figuring out what to do with the 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country is where Republicans are stumped. Conservatives prefer no citizenship, because for them, that is giving “amnesty.” Democrats aren’t inclined to accept a bill that doesn’t address their fate and provides them a path to citizenship.

Putting a single big reform bill together in the House, as opposed to piecemeal bills, proved elusive in 2013, but may be just as difficult in 2014 -- because of the upcoming midterm election.

“I just don’t see the Democrats accepting or the Republicans accepting what the other can’t,” Steven Camarota, director of research at the conservative nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies, said.

“In politics, lies work well, as long as they are told convincingly,” he added. “The Democrats say [they] would take a piecemeal thing, but their basic position is we will take something piecemeal as long as it is all put together in exactly like what we want.”

Republicans are very skittish because they don’t trust their leadership to conference an immigration bill with Democrats, Camarota said.

“The budget deal doesn’t really deal with any of the hard stuff,” he said. “They just agreed to kick the damn can down the road. I understand that’s what Congress does. I’m not saying they shouldn’t or should. But with immigration you gotta confront the tough stuff up front.”

Still, with an issue that’s been declared dead on so many occasions this year, advocates are still choosing to remain optimistic.

“Pundits who have declared immigration reform dead are making a prediction, not stating a fact,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said in a statement on the group’s website. “The House GOP hasn’t gotten to no on immigration reform, they just haven’t figured out yet how to get to yes. That’s why the future of reform will be decided in 2014. ... Reform is a matter of when, not if.”

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