Senate to House: Immigration Is in Your Court (of Public Opinion)

So, the Senate immigration bill didn’t hit the 70-vote threshold that was going to magically melt all House Republican resistance to opening the narrow new path to citizenship even before the border is totally locked-down tight. The solemn roll call came up two senators short. So what? For essentially the entire three weeks that immigration overhaul was on the Senate floor, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, made clear he couldn’t care less how big the bipartisan coalition grew on the other side of the Capitol. He wasn’t falling into the expectations trap set by some members of the Senate's bipartisan “gang of eight.” In fact, he wasn’t even going to buy the notion he had to announce right away how the House would respond to Senate passage of one of the most consequential domestic policy measures in the last quarter-century. On the contrary, he has always insisted, he hasn’t even really started trying to figure that out. That’s what the coming July Fourth recess is for. "We're going to wait to see what our constituents say next week," Boehner offered succinctly when asked, at his weekly Thursday news conference, about his next move. Senate passage was orchestrated to occur on the eve of the break, so senators might coast for the next 10 days on a rare cushion of accomplishment. But for the House GOP leadership, the timing offers a significant benefit: It guarantees their members will be refining their thinking on immigration because they’re sure to be getting an earful on the topic — not only from the independents who could swing any close re-election races next year, but also, more importantly, from the conservatives who might support primary challenges against dozens of them. Yes, it’s true that dozens of them have been getting a head start, conducting telephone town-hall sessions, online surveys and conference calls with leaders in their business (and, occasionally, labor) communities. It’s also true that the basic parameters of the Senate debate have been known all year, and the fact that about a third of their Republican colleagues were ready to sign on has been known for a week. And they have been looking at their profound problem with the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group since Election Day. But there was something undeniably cathartic to the moment when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced the final 68-32 tally. The outcome was anticlimactic, but the springboard effect was significant. The issue is now in the House’s lap, and pushing it to the curb is politically not an option. The headlines about the bill’s big Senate step will be dominant across the country when the rank and file flies home Friday afternoon, so immigration seems guaranteed to be one of the first things members will get asked about when they go out for coffee this weekend. The reason for this time back home, of course, is the Fourth of July, a holiday that prompts the year’s biggest burst of purposeful contemplation about the meanings of American citizenship and the virtues of Statue of Liberty values. If the voters aren’t weighing the limitations of the current immigration system now, and telling their lawmakers what they think, they probably never will be. So by the time the 234 House Republicans return, and file into a special caucus meeting on immigration scheduled for July 10, they all should have a solid idea of what they are ready to support on both policy and political grounds. Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, who’s got something to prove to his own colleagues after the farm bill’s unexpected rejection, will have their best opportunity of the year to gauge where the majority of the majority is on immigration, and how firmly it’s likely to stay there. The leaders should be able to count whether it’s two dozen or three dozen who would be willing to vote for the Senate bill, so that option can be set aside definitively. And then they ought to be able to assess under what conditions most Republicans would support a path to citizenship: With border security provisions even more expensive than the Senate’s? With an E-Verify employment checking system even stronger than the Senate’s? Only after some verifiable proof has been offered that the border has been 90 percent plugged? Only if the guest worker system makes life even easier for seasonal industries? Only with all of the above? Not even with all of the above? They ought to be able to decide relatively quickly what their timetable is. The current leadership consensus is that the preferable move, politically and strategically, is to pass the Judiciary Committee’s modest collection of bills as an opening bid before the end of July — so as to look productive and collaborative, and to set up conference negotiations in the fall. The other option is to slow down and test the waters again during the August recess. That would suggest an indecipherable miasma of opinion in the ranks and the need to reach for some thinking-outside-the-box salvation. It’s into that void that Wisconsin’s Paul D. Ryan is looking very eager to step. His professional interest in stopping the party's demographic death spiral is as clear as anyone’s. And, having spent last summer and fall meeting "constituents" from Jacksonville to Grand Junction, not just Janesville, he sounds confident the time for temperature-taking should be over.