Just a few days after raising the hopes of immigration reform advocates who believed Republicans in the House of Representatives were finally ready to act, Speaker John Boehner dashed those expectations on Thursday by declaring his party is unwilling to take action this year.
That may be smart short-term politics, but it spells long-term disaster for a Republican Party with a serious demographic problem.
Earlier, congressional Republicans made a significant, if belated, policy change on immigration reform at the start of the new legislative year, moving all the way from “Hell, no!” to “Maybe so.” The party issued a statement of principles that signaled it was at long last ready to negotiate a deal.
Granted, Republicans’ version of reform had a fatal flaw – a failure to include a path to citizenship – but it signaled a willingness to move forward, albeit slowly and cautiously. The party has rejected the comprehensive reform bill passed by the Senate last year, but the newly issued principles at least offered a piecemeal approach, which is better than outright rejection.
Suddenly, a deal of some kind, even in an election year, seemed possible – until Boehner slammed on the brakes, offering the weakest of excuses.
The Republican leader said it would be difficult to convince his caucus that President Obama would enforce any immigration bill that could win the approval of a majority of Republicans because ... well, because they just don’t trust the president.
That excuse doesn’t pass the credibility test. Why pass any law at all, if that’s the case? Why not just pack up and go home? Moreover, Obama has been more aggressive than any previous president when it comes to deportation, sending 1.9 million immigrants back home.
Republicans may not be impressed with this tough stance, but it has earned him a high level of criticism in the Latino community. The only reason he continues to maintain some measure of support from Latinos on this issue is because they blame Republicans for obstructing anything that resembles reform.
For Republicans bent on keeping control of the House and capturing the Senate in this year’s elections, avoiding the immigration issue may be a shrewd move. It keeps the party focused on Obamacare and the sluggish economy, which they see as winning issues, and ignores an issue that clearly divides their caucus.
One Republican, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, even suggested Boehner could lose his job as speaker if he insisted on pursuing immigration reform this year.
But the long-term consequences for the party could be grim. Latinos are an increasingly important segment of the electorate.
Hispanics played a significant role in the 2012 presidential election, when a record 11.2 million of them voted. They supported the president over challenger Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent.
By failing to move forward, Boehner is losing sight of the long-term stakes for his party.
He emerged from the government shutdown imbroglio with strong support from his right-wing caucus because he went along with the shutdown even though he said it was wrong. But what’s the use of having stronger support if he refuses to lead?
Sooner or later, comprehensive reform will be enacted. If not this year, later. If not by this Congress, then by another. The more that Republicans block reform, the worse it will be for the party’s long-term future.