The headline-grabbing debate over immigration reform is happening in the Senate this week, as the entire body debates a series of amendments to the comprehensive legislation passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. There is a very real chance that reform could die there—if, for example, Senator John Cornyn’s border security amendment passes, the bill might become unsupportable for many Democrats.
But lurking in the background is an even more difficult fight in the House, where the Republican caucus is much more hostile to reform. House members are beholden to smaller, more conservative districts, and there are no leaders calling for reform analogous to Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain in the Senate.
This week began with some promising signs from the office of House Speaker John Boehner. For months, he said virtually nothing about his strategy for passing immigration reform—not even whether one existed—but Politico reported Monday that “privately, the Ohio Republican is beginning to sketch out a road map to try to pass some version of an overhaul in his chamber.” The next morning, during an ABC News interview, Boehner hinted that he might allow an immigration bill to pass the House with a majority of Democratic votes, thereby abandoning the so-called “Hastert rule.”
Without question, that was tremendous news for proponents of immigration reform. But don’t think conservatives opposed to any legislation didn’t notice—and the first unified effort by anti-immigration House members might have now begun.
Thursday morning, Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze had the exclusive news that seventy members of the House GOP “are planning a politically risky showdown” with Boehner. Led by Representatives Steve King, Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert, the group is demanding two things from Boehner: (1) a special Republican conference meeting about immigration, and (2) a promise to be true to the Hastert Rule.
The caucus meeting could be perilous for Boehner—his strategy of keeping the House at a very low temperature and mollifying, at least for now, the hardline anti-immigration members couldn’t survive a head-to-head confrontation. Boehner would have to address their Hastert rule request directly. (Note, too, that conservative activists also began pressuring Boehner on the Hastert rule this week—the heads of the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, the American Conservative Union and the Family Research Council sent Boehner a letter on Tuesday demanding he never stray from the Hastert rule again.)
Boehner could of course ignore their request for a meeting, but that’s a somewhat unattractive option as well. [UPDATE: Boehner announced late Thursday that on July 10, there will be a caucus-wide meeting on immigration. It’s not immediately clear if he was acting in response to the conservative push, nor whether they will insist on meeting sooner.] The Blaze report said the letter will arrive in Boehner’s office on Friday.
What’s striking—and potentially catastrophic for the GOP, politically—is how direct the leaders of the looming House revolt are about opposing immigration reform. This is in contrast to say John Cornyn, who is at least claiming to support reform but pushing for stronger border security requirements.
Representative King, for example, not long after the Blaze story broke, characterized undocumented students who came to his Capitol Hill office thusly:
Bachmann just gave an interview to World Net Daily this week that depicted "amnesty" as a master plan to create a permanent “progressive class.” The Blaze included that interview in its exclusive on the new Bachmann-King-Gohmert strategy:
“This is President Obama’s number one political agenda item because he knows we will never again have a Republican president, ever, if amnesty goes into effect. We will perpetually have a progressive, liberal president, probably a Democrat, and we will probably see the House of Representatives go into Democrat hands and the Senate will stay in Democrat hands,” Bachmann said.
She also said that if it passes, the bill would create a permanent progressive class.
“That’s what’s at risk right now. It may sound melodramatic, I don’t mean it that way, but this is that big and that important,” Bachmann said.
And Beck was quick to do his part. Within an hour of The Blaze’s story, Beck appeared on his web television show to herald the House GOP revolt and described it as a potential Waterloo for the entire Tea Party:
These seventy [members] are standing up and saying, ‘Take away all of our power.’ They know that if they lose, they lose. The Tea Party has—this is putting all of the chips on the table. You’ve been asking for it, you’ve been asking for people with a spine.
This one is not going to be easy. They’re going to be called racist, they’re going to be called every name under the sun, and so will you. You have to know why you are for it, why you say… I am not a racist. I am not violent. But I am not going to be silent any more. We have been silent far too long.
You may have noticed Beck’s slight intimation of violence there. As his fifteen-minute rant on the House GOP pushback escalated, he called for both civil disobedience and, apparently, violent struggle:
Is there anything worth losing your life over, more important than this? Is there anything more important than standing up for human dignity? For the rights of all mankind? They are going to try to make this into a civil rights case, and it is not. It is an affront to anyone who understands civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr. was not saying, ‘We’re all breaking the law here.’ Unless the law is unjust, you cannot eat at that supermarket counter. The hell I can’t.
No, I’m not quite sure what that means either. But the point is that Beck wants his audience to see the immigration battle as a must-win, where the entire Tea Party movement is at stake. Seventy House GOP members, including several Tea Party stars, are ready to being the battle. While this was, at some point, inevitable, it's bad news for Boehner, and much more importantly, bad news for immigration reform.