John Boehner wants immigration reform to pass. To get it done, the House speaker will have to capitalize on the widening gap among conservatives, and he's preparing the groundwork to do it.
The rare split inside the conservative wing of Boehner's Republican conference offers him an uncommon opportunity to bring a bill to the floor without facing an insurrection among his members. It also means convincing enough conservatives that passing some immigration measure won't be preamble to the Senate using compromise negotiations to jam a more liberal version down the House's throat.
As a senior GOP leadership aide put it, "Our conference is all over the place. Our goal here is to try and find that little slice of land where we can walk through and we're not crucified on either side."
Republicans on and off the Hill say Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy all want to do something on immigration. Boehner "really wants to get that done but he has to be real quiet about it because if he puts his name on it and his brand on it, like he did with the big (fiscal-cliff) deal, then it's probably going to die under its own weight," a former GOP leadership aide said.
So House leaders have been meeting privately with members, making the case that inaction on immigration will be more costly than doing something. Weeks into the debate, it remains a hard sell among reform opponents, particularly members who do not want to offer citizenship to people here illegally. They worry that any House legislation -- such as a tough border-security bill most of them are after -- will ultimately be watered down in negotiations with the Senate.
"What will have to happen, and is happening in private discussions, is that we have to convince these guys if we're going to go to conference, we're not going to cave on our principles," a senior House GOP aide said. "That is the sales job you have to make to those guys."
But it's a hard argument to win -- and not only because Republicans don't think Democrats have much incentive to accept anything other than the Senate bill.
Plaguing House leadership is a fear among conservatives that immigration reform could be one of those few pieces of legislation that Boehner might value enough to bring to the floor knowing it would pass even though it fails to get the majority of House Republicans to back it.
"This is one of those issues where they may only get 80 to 100 Republicans to vote for it on the House floor, but there won't be the huge internal backlash," the former aide said. "And that gives (leadership) some room to maneuver and they have some conservative cover. They have (Sen. Marco) Rubio and (Rep. Raul) Labrador," who are two key conservative Republicans pushing reform.
Some in leadership scoff at the notion of bringing anything to the floor without majority Republican support. "I just can't see that happening," a House GOP leadership aide said.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, "Our goal is always to pass legislation with strong Republican support consistent with our principles."
A number of influential congressional Republicans believe that giving the 11 million people living in the country illegally a path to citizenship opens up a new pool of voters who share the GOP's entrepreneurial, family, and religious values.
"There's no reason why these people can't be our voters except for the fact that you have (GOP Rep.) Steve King out there talking about electrifying our border fence," the senior GOP aide said.
But before that happens, Republican leaders need to convert more skeptical lawmakers into believers.