Boehner’s High-Stakes Game of Chicken on Immigration Reform

john boehnerThe Senate’s 68-32 vote for immigration reform last week was remarkable. But instead of viewing it as a key step toward enactment, much of the media is asking if the bill “even has a chance in the House. Why such pessimism? It’s because Speaker John Boehner insists he will not even allow a vote on the bill without majority Republicans support. And considering that only 10% of House districts are said to be competitive in 2014, and 70% of GOP House districts have less than 10% Latino voters, many say Boehner’s unwillingness to allow passage with a minority of GOP votes spells defeat.

But three factors alter this analysis. First, the 30% of GOP House members whose districts are more than 10% Latino risk defeat in 2014 if immigration reform fails. Second, the bill’s failure could cause enough of the roughly 43 competitive House seats to shift to Democrats, costing the GOP control of the House. Third, the corporate and high-tech interests pushing for immigration reform are used to winning and will financially retaliate if the GOP stands in the way. Boehner is playing a high-stakes game of chicken on immigration reform, and activists can call his bluff by aggressively targeting vulnerable House Republicans.

I’m all for political realism, but predictions that immigration reform will die in the House seem entirely based on taking Speaker John Boehner’s words at face value. That’s never a good idea. And while many argue that Boehner must be believed this time despite prior flip-flops, his speakership is jeopardized more by immigration reform’s defeat than its passage.

Reframing the 2014 Election

By most accounts, Democrats face an uphill battle to retake the House in 2014. Democrats cannot overcome the combination of too many gerrymandered districts and the lack of a signature issue to galvanize a huge Democratic turnout.

But this dynamic all changes if immigration reform does not even come to a House vote. This action turns the entire 2014 election into a plebiscite on immigration reform, with young people and others who normally vote in presidential elections but not midterms showing up at the polls.

Why would the Republican political establishment want the 2014 national elections to turn on the House refusal to allow a vote on immigration reform? The answer is they don’t, and this won’t happen.

And if you believe that those Tea Party House Republicans love nothing more than to spit in the eye of the Party’s establishment, take a look where a sizeable number get their campaign funding. The business establishment that funds the GOP will see enormous financial gains from immigration reform, and if GOP House members kill it, these forces will be funding Democrats in competitive races next year.

Boehner understands this. That’s why he’s playing a high-stakes game of chicken not to actually prevent a vote on immigration reform, but to work out a deal that enables his most conservative members to claim they put their imprint on the final bill.

Targeting GOP Districts

Calling Boehner’s bluff requires putting pressure on GOP House members in competitive districts. Activists have already built grassroots campaigns in swing GOP districts and in key states like Florida and Arizona, which is why the Senate vote became a 68-32 landslide.

Unlike past immigration reform efforts, the high-tech world is all in on getting passage this year. These are people and companies accustomed to winning, and they are not going to sit back and allow the House GOP to avoid a vote on an immigration reform bill that the tech sector deems essential.

A past problem in targeting swing House districts was that most lacked strong union, Latino or church influence, so that building local activist pressure was difficult. But the high-tech sector and Chamber of Commerce have a presence in such areas, and their pressure for passage means that GOP House members opposing immigration reform will no longer get a free pass.

randy shawNothing is guaranteed in politics, and immigrant rights activists know that it will take unrelenting pressure to force Boehner’s hand. But when you have conservative icons like Bill O’Reilly of FOX News strongly pushing for immigration reform, the message at the base level is clear: this bill needs to get done not only for the GOP to have a chance for the White House in 2016, but to ensure it retains the House in 2014.

So while millions hit the beaches to escape the sweltering heat of July, immigrant rights activists and their allies will be hitting swing GOP districts—and calling Boehner’s bluff.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron

Monday, 1 July 2013

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