After losing big in last November’s election, Republicans got a warning. The Republican National Committee, which provides leadership and coordinates the party’s strategy, issued a report in March, urging partisans to change the notion minorities have that “Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
Fast forward four months: The Senate has passed a 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes what senators call a “tough but fair” 13-year path to citizenship and improvements in border security. The House Republican conference met Wednesday for more than two hours about its response to Senate’s bill. Leaders emerged with a reaffirmation that the “flawed” measure will not see the floor without majority support within their caucus -- a position that may well reinforce the poor impression minorities, including Latinos, have of the party.
“House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system,” a joint statement read. “The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy.”
Behind closed doors in the Capitol basement, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned his members that inaction puts the party in “a much weaker position,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told the media. “He clearly wants to act, thinks something needs to get done. Frankly, our principles are probably closer to where the American people are, but it’s incumbent upon us to act.”
So why is it that no one appears to be listening? It’s not a problem with the leadership, experts agree. It’s the rank and file Republicans. They say it’s a case of representation versus governing, where House members want to satisfy the constituents of their districts, rather than collectively doing what may be in the best interest of the country, or of their party's long-term electoral fortunes.
“What’s not necessarily the best thing for any individual is perhaps the best thing for the country as a whole,” said Jeffery A. Jenkins, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “That’s something that Boehner has to strike home to his members. If he doesn’t sort of play the country card, he has to play the party card. ‘You want Republicans to stay in the majority, we have to move on this issue.’”
If House Republicans remain divided, the only option Boehner may have is to stand back and watch his party possibly crumble. Or he can try to get a compromise measure that includes a path to citizenship and could pass the House, but only with Democratic help. Such a move could be his last as speaker, if his caucus, filled with freshmen and sophomore representatives who view compromise as anathema, sees it as surrender and revolts.
“The problem Speaker Boehner faces in moving major measures through the House is that the far right flank seems unwilling to compromise as a matter of principle,” said Sarah Binder, senior fellow at Brookings Institution. “So, Boehner feels compelled to bring very conservative measures to the floor that Democrats won’t vote for.”
Despite their public statements, Politico is reporting that the House Republican leadership is touching base with its Democratic colleagues to gauge their support for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. In the event that legislation does leave the House it may very well be quite conservative with a focus on border security and law enforcement. If tea party-backed members were willing to compromise, mustering the 218 votes to pass bills would be much easier without asking anything from Democrats.
“The ability of a leader to do anything often times revolves around the degree to which his or her coalition is homogenous,” Jenkins said. “Boehner’s dealing with a [divided] coalition, and one big chunk of that coalition -- the tea party membership -- is very resistant to the sorts of policy maneuvers that he would like to move in the direction of.”
“If you’re going to build any kind of bill at all and get something to the Senate you have to be able to compromise -- border security plus some path to citizenship -- and when one part of your caucus is unwilling to compromise on one major segment of a bill it’s difficult,” he added. “[Boehner’s] in a position right now of deciding whether he is going to do what he thinks is best for the brand name, the Republican label, in the long term, or whether he is willing to go along with a big coalition within his party, the tea party members.”
One thing is for certain: “Legislating in polarized times is never easy,” said Brookings’ Binder. “But the past three years drive home how near-impossible it is to legislate when a legislative party prefers inaction to compromising on half-steps.”