Boehner Wants to Go Big, but Will His Rank and File Follow?

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

CAMBRIDGE, Md. – Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and his lieutenants came to the GOP retreat looking to convince the conference to go big and back an immigration overhaul, a real health care alternative and more. They left with mixed results.  

For three years, Republicans have struggled to coalesce around an alternative to Obamacare. This year, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia vowed his party would finally vote on its own health care plan — something easy to say and harder to do. And Boehner tried to unite the restive conference around a controversial rewrite of the nation’s immigration policy, something that could actually become law.  

Of course, it's no secret that the GOP hasn't been able to unify on much other than opposition to the president — something President Barack Obama alluded to in a sit-down interview with CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday and in his State of the Union address, when he challenged Republicans to bring forward their own ideas.  

“In order to maximize our year, it’s important that we show the American people we’re not just the opposition party, we’re actually the alternative party,” Boehner told reporters Thursday morning.  

Cantor and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon both served up variations of the Boehner line to the press.  

The GOP push for the year is twofold: show they can govern on the major issues of the day while tamping down on GOP infighting and present a unified face to win control of the Senate.  

“We know we’re inextricably bound to them,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said of the Senate. “We certainly don’t want to do things that make it harder for them.”  

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California began the Thursday retreat meetings by presenting a breakdown of House Republican voting patterns by committee, class and geographic region, an attempt to show that dissent of the past years has not been exclusive to the younger, more tea-party-infused classes of 2010 and 2012.  

Republicans generally coalesced around the idea of presenting their own health care bill, so it is now leadership’s task to consolidate the ideas and decide whether to move forward with one or several bills.  

“I think it’s real important we spell out we have an alternative to this terrible thing called Obamacare,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.  “As the only part of the federal government that’s currently in Republican hands, I think it’s important we lay out a vision for how we think the country can go.”  

But the conference remains bitterly split on an immigration overhaul. Those divisions manifested Thursday, when Republicans held an open debate on principles handed down by Boehner.  

Republicans lined up behind three microphones to deliver their thoughts on immigration in one-minute bursts: one microphone for those who support an overhaul, another for those who support the effort but think it’s the wrong time to act, and the third for Republicans who just outright oppose a policy rewrite.  

The three-microphone setup may have established the GOP middle ground on the issue as pro-overhaul, but anti-action this year — a dilemma some members said may prevent leadership from pushing ahead.  

“The majority of us are for immigration reform,” Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho said Thursday night after the immigration discussion. “But they understand: not with this president and not with this Senate.”  

Boehner and his team believe Republicans would be served well by an overhaul, but as he is wont to say, a leader without a flock is just a man out for a walk. So the speaker told members that the discussion is ongoing and no decisions have been made on any step of an immigration rewrite.  

Members repeatedly voiced concerns that Obama could not be trusted to apply tighter border enforcement laws. “The challenge is can we deal with that, can we deal with forcing an administration that nobody trusts to deal with the things that we think need to be dealt with?” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, a proponent of acting this year.  

A number of members also voiced concern that Republicans would open themselves up to political attacks from both Democrats and Republican opponents by acting in 2014.  

And they are divided over the political risks of an immigration overhaul not just in the short term — Walden told reporters that a proposed policy rewrite would come after the majority of GOP primaries had already taken place — but over the long haul as well.  

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota asked her colleagues on Thursday if Republicans thought Democrats would support an immigration overhaul if 80 percent of those immigrants who would be “granted amnesty” would vote Republican.  She said an immigration overhaul in this fashion would create a "permanent Democrat majority bloc."  

In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Bachmann said multiple members told the conference behind closed doors that an immigration overhaul was “a suicide mission.”  

One of those members, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, said he thought leadership would cool its efforts to push an immigration rewrite this year.  

“My sense is that the consensus here is that we should not move forward and that leaders will abide by that,” Fleming told CQ Roll Call. “On a political basis, this is a suicide mission for Republicans. Why would we want to change the topic for a very toxic problem Democrats have with Obamacare?”  

Fleming said Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Science Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, and Budget Vice Chairman Tom Price of Georgia — all of whom are influential in conservative circles — spoke in front of the conference to say an overhaul should not move forward this year.  

In the near term, Republicans will have to tackle a hike to the debt ceiling . The retreat ended without a resolution on how leaders can sell the vote to their members.