Immigration Reform's Moment of Truth

House Republicans are meeting today to figure out what's next for the landmark legislation. Things look bleak for reformers.
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Nick Ut/Associated Press

Immigration reform passed the Senate, but can it get through the House? We may find out soon.

House Republicans are scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon for a summit aimed at deciding how to move forward on the issue. It is a meeting that could signal the way forward for an issue that has teetered schizophrenically between a sense of optimism (a big, bipartisan bill passed the Senate with 68 votes!) and a sense of doom (the conservative House will never agree to this!).

Despite that big Senate vote, Speaker John Boehner has been adamant that the House "do its own job" rather than taking up the Senate bill. He has also insisted that any House bill get the support of a majority of Republicans. At the same time, Boehner said Monday that inaction was not an option: "We just can't turn a blind eye to this problem and believe it will go away." Add up all these self-imposed conditions, and the nominal leader of the House of Representatives is in quite a bind.

Boehner is believed to favor immigration reform on policy as well as political grounds. Some of the Republican Party's most influential constituencies -- big business and religious groups -- strongly favor it, and the GOP establishment sees it as a way to begin to restore the party's standing with Hispanic voters. But as has become painfully clear, Boehner holds little sway over the rambunctious House Republican caucus. Recognizing this, he seems to have resigned himself to a more passive role -- listening to his members and letting them dictate how he moves forward. That's why today's conference is so potentially important.

On Wednesday morning, former President George W. Bush added his voice to the chorus urging an immigration compromise with a speech at the Bush Institute in Texas. But on the other side is the hard right. Less vocal now than in 2006-07, when they derailed a similar reform effort, anti-immigration activists continue to hold sway in the party, particularly in strongly Republican congressional districts where primaries pose more danger to representatives' careers than general-election challenges. The idea that the party doesn't need to woo Hispanic votes is gaining traction on the right. On Tuesday, two influential conservative thinkers, William Kristol and Rich Lowry, weighed in with a strongly worded joint editorial that ran in the Weekly Standard and National Review, headlined "Kill the Bill."

Perhaps more important, if less noticed, is what Republican members of Congress are hearing from their constituents. The members recently took a week off for the Fourth of July, and many of them held town-hall-style meetings in their districts. (Recall that it was angry constituents at similar meetings who nearly derailed health-care reform in 2009.) Anecdotal evidence suggests they got an earful:

* Joe Heck, a moderate Republican from a suburban Las Vegas swing district, took 15 questions; 10 of them were about immigration. He was literally shouted down when he tried to argue that America is a nation of immigrants, the Washington Post reported, including this exchange: "Let's face it, we have a broken legal immigration system," Heck said. "No, we don't," a man shouted. "Yes, we do," Heck replied.

* Some pro-reform activists showed up to see Bob Goodlatte, the Republican from rural Virginia who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, according to The Economist. But it was the antis who made the most noise: "This immigration bill stinks to high heaven," one shouted. "We will become a third-world country," yelled a second. "Use all your powers to make sure this bill does not get out of the House," demanded a third.

* At a meeting in the south Texas district of Blake Farenthold, "immigration reform was a hot topic," according to an account in the local newspaper, the Gonzales Cannon. He assured them the Senate bill "doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell" in the House, though he voiced support for some individual reforms to the immigration system.

* Tom Cotton, a conservative Republican from Arkansas, heard about immigration from a quarter of his town hall's attendees, all of them against anything resembling the Senate bill, he told Politico. Cotton said he's wary of passing anything out of the House at all, because a conference committee could combine it with the Senate bill into something unacceptable.

If any Republicans were contemplating stepping out on a limb for immigration reform, feedback like this, combined with a lack of leadership from above, could ensure they don't take a risk. I asked one House Republican chief of staff what to expect from Wednesday's conference meeting and got this answer: "There is going to be unified opposition to the House ever considering the Senate bill. I think if Boehner proposed this path, it would be like Tahrir Square." And yet there is pressure on the House to do something. After Wednesday, we may have a clue of what that something is.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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