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House Republicans May Get To Immigration, Just Not Now

House Speaker John Boehner isn't necessarily walking away from an immigration law overhaul this year.
J. Scott Applewhite
House Speaker John Boehner isn't necessarily walking away from an immigration law overhaul this year.

In politics, it always comes down to timing. And right now, it appears the timing just isn't right for congressional Republicans to take up an immigration overhaul.

If you read between the lines, that's what Speaker John Boehner was saying when he talked earlier in the week about how "difficult" the immigration issue is. And it's what GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell was saying when he indicated earlier in the week that he didn't see immigration overhaul happening this year at all.

"It's a tough issue in a midterm election year," explains former Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette from Ohio, a longtime Boehner ally.

"Mitch McConnell indicated it ain't happening in 2014 and I think that has everything to do with the fact that he has a primary in the state of Kentucky," LaTourette said. "Boehner followed suit rather quickly and probably from the standpoint, which I think is smart, that he's not going to walk his conference off the cliff on a very thorny issue if it's dead on arrival in the Senate."

The timing is also bad because numerous congressional Republicans are facing primaries. In any case, Boehner hasn't built enough support in his conference to push ahead on immigration, even in the piecemeal way he prefers, as opposed to the comprehensive package the Senate passed last year.

Boehner and his leadership team are sensitive to how immigration could prove so disruptive that it could hurt the chances for any other legislation coming after it.

"It's premature to say it's over. In my discussions with the leadership offices, what they're saying is they can't do it now, they don't have the votes now," said John Feehery, president of communications for Quinn Gillespie, a consulting and lobby shop. "There might be another time when they can get the votes," said Feehery, a former top House aide. "But we've got a debt limit [vote] and this has been a distraction."

So House Republican leaders would prefer to get past the debt limit fight and a few other legislative battles before they take on immigration.

House GOP leaders certainly realize they need to find some way to act on immigration, despite the resistance from a segment of the party. They fully understand the increasing Latino share of the U.S. electorate, and the necessity of make the party more appealing to those voters — otherwise, the GOP will continually find the White House beyond reach. That's why House Republicans unveiled their immigration overhaul principles at their recent retreat.

But it's when you make the move that matters when it comes to controversial legislation. The trouble with immigration is that there may be no good time to proceed — just bad times and worse times, politically speaking.

"The politics of immigration have never been perfect for anybody ever," says Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "Immigration is just one of those issues that's difficult politically. And I don't know if there's ever a perfect time for immigration reform. In some ways it's like dealing with entitlement reform. Has there ever been a good political time to deal with that?"

Immigration overhaul advocates do have one thing going for them, however. Rattling off a list of what she called "major" immigration laws, Brown said they all passed during even-numbered years — 1986, 1990, 1996, 2000, 2002. "I don't know if I have a rationale for that."

But it provides a sliver of hope for 2014.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frank James
Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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