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Boehner's no-win immigration dilemma

President Obama is forcing the speaker into another scary scenario for Republicans: Immigration reform. What's his least bad option?
/ Source: MSNBC TV

President Obama is forcing the speaker into another scary scenario for Republicans: Immigration reform. What's his least bad option?

President Obama is forcing Speaker John Boehner into another no-win dilemma for Republicans: immigration reform. 

Boehner could just ignore Obama's call Thursday to "finish the job of fixing our broken immigration system" and blame the budget schedule rather than drag the Republican Party through another brutal civil war this year. 

But there are some signs that he might push ahead. Key players in his caucus have already made public comments raising expectations for action on immigration in recent weeks. House Republicans exploring the issue held meetings right through the shutdown, sources told msnbc.

If Boehner does move forward with an immigration bill, even a mostly symbolic one, the shutdown is an ominous sign. The same dynamics that sent Republicans off a political cliff this month--fear of a conservative backlash, reflexive opposition to the president, and an inability to plan past the next vote--are all in play on immigration.

That means Republicans could stick their necks out for an immigration deal that doesn't please activists and might still fail on the floor anyway, leaving the Republican Party in an even worse position than if Boehner had just dropped the issue.

So why would Boehner press on? Because it's too late to stop. 

In July, Boehner made a critical decision to kill the Senate's bipartisan deal and instead enact reform by piecemeal. To soothe conservative fears, the Judiciary Committee started off by passing a tough Arizona-style enforcement measure. To keep Latino groups from going on the attack, Republican leaders hinted the committee would take up a legalization bill next.

That second bill has yet to surface. That means if Boehner pulls the plug now, Republicans will have voted for a "self-deportation" plan despised by Latinos, an equally toxic Steve King-backed amendment calling on Obama to deport DREAMers, a handful of uncontroversial visa fixes--and nothing else. It would be like starting heart surgery on a patient and walking away with the incision still open. Failing to pass immigration reform is dangerous enough politically, but in this scenario you might as well hand Florida and Colorado to Hillary Clinton now.

Completing the operation would mean a rematch for many of the Republican players involved in the shutdown. Prominent voices in the party who tried to head off the defunding meltdown, including Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and the Chamber of Commerce, have thrown their weight behind an immigration deal. Meanwhile, groups like Jim DeMint's Heritage Foundation that successfully whipped votes in the shutdown fight are strongly opposed to immigration reform (although not so great at expressing it).

As a result, it's easy to imagine a script with the same dramatic arc as the shutdown, which was already a remake of past conflicts between Boehner and his caucus. Something like this:

1. Boehner and House leaders decides the GOP needs to release a credible immigration proposal to avoid political disaster, even if it has little chance of passing the Senate.

2. Hoping to drive a wedge between Democrats and immigration advocates, they announce a plan with the fewest concessions they think they can get away with: maybe legalization without a path to citizenship or even just a weak version of the DREAM Act (something Eric Cantor has been working on).

3. Heritage puts out an alert threatening members who back "amnesty." RedState freaks out. Ted Cruz returns from a meeting with House members at Tortilla Coast to deliver a 39-hour speech denouncing the plan.

4. The day of the vote, Boehner faces a revolt at his morning caucus meeting. House leaders scramble to make changes to the bill to keep wavering members on board, but that prompts Democrats to withdraw all support. Boehner calls off the scheduled vote, President Obama delivers a national address the same night surrounded by young undocumented immigrants, and the next NBC/WSJ poll shows Republicans losing Latino voters by historic margins.

Immigration advocates are worried raw feelings among Republicans in the wake of their shutdown defeat could help set something resembling the above events into motion. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, one of the top Democrats working on immigration, said in an MSNBC appearance Friday that Obama should invite Boehner and relevant Republicans to the White House individually to calm things down before moving ahead.

"If it's framed as 'Obama beat you and now this is what you have to do next to prove you can govern,' then I don't think there will be a lot of appetite for reform," Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, told MSNBC. "If it's framed as, 'We need to do this for the country, for the party, and we're coming up with our own conservative solution,' then maybe."

Obama, conscious of this dynamic from the start, has deliberately kept his distance from negotiations in Congress, choosing instead to cheer them on from the sidelines. But House Republicans, even some who've shown an interest in immigration reform, complain that the current environment makes a deal difficultt.

“I think there is less trust now than in the three years I’ve been here,” Trey Gowdy, chair of the immigration subcommittee, told reporters on Wednesday. “So when I hear the president say immigration reform is coming next? No, it’s not.”

In the meantime, Jacoby and other reformers see at least some signs of encouragement. A handful of moderate Republicans are seizing on the Cruz wing's failures to demand a more pragmatic approach to governance in general. But even those pushing hardest for immigration reform acknowledge that if it beomes law, it will be because Boehner went against many -- likely most -- of his own caucus.

"The question for Boehner is what's the critical mass?" one House Democratic aide told MSNBC. "Is it 50 Republicans? Is it 75? Is it 80? If it's 118 we're likely in trouble--there probably isn't a bill that could get there and attract any Democrats."

The most optimistic immigration supporters are hoping he decides his party's brand is so damaged that he repeats the shutdown's endgame and turns to Democrats to pass a bill. The speaker has assured nervous conservatives he'll require majority GOP support for House immigration bills, but he's left the door open a crack as to whether he'd do the same for a deal worked out in conference with the Senate.