Boehner Hill talking 2013
John Boehner's speakership is on the line again. Reuters

As House Republicans prepare for Wednesday’s special conference on immigration reform, Speaker John Boehner’s perennial problem is back: He once again faces a quandary that could put his speakership on the line. As captain of the ship, Boehner is navigating treacherous waters, trying to balance short-term problems (re-election next year) with long-term goals (remaining politically relevant and paving the way for a future Republican White House win).

Boehner needs an immigration reform bill that's tough enough to get support from a majority of his party. But it also must be one the Senate can accept, and one that can go to conference.

How Boehner steers that ship will be clearer after the special meeting, but for now he has two choices to get a 2013 immigration reform bill out of Congress and onto the president’s desk. Boehner can either support a path to citizenship, something the majority seems unlikely to support, or choose to not legalize the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. The first option will no doubt draw the ire of his conservative wing. It would result in threats to oust him, but Democrats would no longer be able to point the finger at Republicans as obstructionists. Doing nothing about the 11 million undocumented immigrants would be saying the status quo is OK, and it would likely ensure the GOP's extinction among the all-important Hispanic voters.

Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri, believes that at this point the speaker is most sensitive to the concerns of his Republican caucus. And Boehner has reasons to be. The House passed four bills this year without the support of the majority of Republicans, contravening the so-called Hastert Rule. This informal principle, also known as "the majority of the majority," calls for the Speaker of the House not to bring any bills for a floor vote unless they are supported by the majority of the majority. That happened for "fiscal cliff" tax increases and Hurricane Sandy aid.

“It’s going to be very hard to push him to do something where he doesn’t have the majority of his caucus,” Squire said. “So I think the immigration effort will probably flail a bit in the House.”

That's already happening, with only separate pieces of immigration legislation being discussed in the House, each tackling one of the issues Republicans care most about. The Senate sent its version of a comprehensive immigration reform bill to the House about two weeks ago. In that measure is a 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a doubling of border patrol agents in the south. However, Boehner has said he won’t even glance at it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to force Boehner’s hand this week regarding the speaker’s determination to stick to the “Hastert Rule,” saying the speaker will be forced to take up the Senate bill “or the country will be left with no immigration reform at all. Which is a bad, bad outcome.” But Boehner, at least for now, is talking tough.

“The House is going to do its own job on developing an immigration bill,” Boehner said Monday. “But it’s real clear, from everything that I’ve seen and read over the last couple of weeks, that the American people expect that we’ll have strong border security in place before we begin the process of legalizing and fixing our legal immigration system.”

Hence the piecemeal approach, in which Republican strategist Ron Bonjean sees some benefit. According to him, Boehner knows that to do nothing about immigration reform is sending a negative message to Hispanic voters. On the other hand, House Republicans want to ensure that whatever leaves their chamber has their imprint. To rush a bill through the chamber and Congress, Bonjean said, is risky for Republicans up for re-election in the 2014 midterms, just around the corner. They are more accountable to their districts’ constituents right now and would do well to worry about the White House after.

Using a piecemeal approach means that something will eventually get out of the House and into conference. Whether it will be a series of bills is a game of wait and see. And even if Republicans stick to enforcement and do nothing about legalizing the 11 million, with a measure in conference they have a fighting chance against Democrats’ charges.

“That strategy would be to get as much of an immigration reform bill done and into conference to serve as a heat shield from Democratic attack that they are anti-Hispanic,” Bonjean said. “If [Republicans] aren’t able to get anything done on immigration through the House that opens up the charge from Democrats that they still don’t get it after the 2012 election. Getting something into conference totally muddies the water. It allows House Republicans to say, ‘wait a minute, we passed immigration reform measures, we’re in conference now with you. Let’s negotiate, but let’s figure out the right way to proceed to get a bill to the president’s desk.’”