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Watching Boehner shift with the winds

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Here's what House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said about immigration reform immediately after the 2012 elections:

"This issue has been around far too long. A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."

And here's what Boehner told his caucus members this week:

"There's this narrative being written in the press and by Democrats and, quite frankly by some Republicans, that I am pushing a comprehensive immigration bill, and that's just not true."

So I guess he was for "comprehensive" immigration reform before he was against it?

My Grand Unified Theory of Boehner is that his policy and political instincts are generally quite sound, probably better than he's given credit for. The Speaker didn't want to hold 38 floor votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, didn't want to want to hold the debt-ceiling hostage, didn't want to reject President Obama's "Grand Bargain" offer, and doesn't want to kill immigration reform.

But whatever the merits of Boehner's instincts, he's simply too weak to follow them. The Speaker isn't a right-wing ideologue; he's a guy who's spent most of his career wanting to cut deals and pass bills. But now that he leads a radicalized caucus, Boehner seems to have determined that the only way to keep power (i.e., his gavel) is to allow himself to be pushed around -- he's a leader that few are willing to follow.

It's precisely why, within days of Election Day 2012, the Speaker was more than willing to endorse "comprehensive" immigration reform, and why this week, he's effectively telling his own members, "Who, me?"

It's also why it's difficult to know whether he is, in fact, bluffing when it comes to getting a bill passed.

For months, the political world has debated whether Boehner would rely on House Democratic votes to pass the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform plan -- probably the only way the legislation can survive. Just yesterday, the Speaker dashed the hopes of many, declaring, "I don't see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn't have a majority support of Republicans."

This, in turn, generated a fascinating debate among some friends of mine. Some, including Greg Sargent and Jonathan Bernstein, have suggested Boehner's bluffing and his bluster is not to be accepted at face value. Others, including Kevin Drum and Ed Kilgore, have pushed back in the other direction, arguing that Boehner's serious and House GOP leaders are likely to kill the legislation.

I tend to agree with all four of these guys 9 times out of 10, so the division is, at a minimum, a worthwhile debate.

Kevin summarized the "Boehner's bluffing" argument nicely.

* The Republican establishment wants immigration reform to pass. The business community wants it because they'd rather have cheap legal labor than cheap illegal labor, and the smarter GOP eminences want it because they think -- possibly correctly -- that they can't win the presidency in 2016 if Hispanics keep voting overwhelmingly against them. And they really want to win back the presidency in 2016.

* But the base of the party is dead set against immigration reform. They'll only accept it if (a) the border and citizenship requirements are tough, and (b) they believe that Republicans have fought hard to wring every last concession out of Democrats. They'll bolt at the first sign that they're being sold out.

* Given that, Boehner (and Marco Rubio) have to sound relentlessly tough just to give the bill a chance.

* But even if all this happens, lots of Republicans still won't be willing to risk the wrath of the tea-party base by voting in favor. Instead, they'd rather denounce the bill in public, while privately telling Boehner to bring it to the floor and get the damn thing over with. Let Democrats pass it with the help of just enough Republicans in safe seats that it seems plausibly bipartisan, thus salvaging the Hispanic vote.

It sounds sensible enough, though Kevin added, "It certainly sounds logical, but let's face it: logic is not a strong suit of the contemporary House Republican caucus."

Before yesterday, I was on board with this Sargent/Bernstein thesis. There's a big chunk of House Republicans who make up the "vote no, hope yes" caucus -- they'll talk a good game in public, but are telling the GOP leadership behind the scenes to keep moving the bill for the good of the party. The bluster, in other words, is hollow -- and Boehner knows it.

But I started moving to Drum/Kilgore after listening to Boehner yesterday morning. For months, the Speaker has used cagey language to remain non-committal on whether he'd bypass the will of the "majority of the majority," but as of yesterday, he now, he's leaving himself very little wiggle room. Boehner is saying, privately and publicly, that he doesn't intend to act on immigration reform that most of his members oppose -- and any bill that's worth passing will draw the opposition of most House Republicans.

Imagine the nightmare he'll face from his own ostensible allies if Boehner turns around and passes an immigration bill that most Republicans oppose.

I don't think the Speaker is bluffing; I think the Speaker is terrified. He'll have to choose between short-term concerns (a possible revolt from his members and his base) or long-term concerns (the party's demographic death spiral), and I'm starting to think he'll prioritize the former over the latter.

Boehner just doesn't seem strong enough to be more responsible.