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The House Republican Firewall

The House Republican Firewall

By Ben Domenech - June 20, 2013

Over the coming weeks you should expect to hear a lot more about how once again John Boehner and those Republican radicals are wrecking their party and the nation by standing in the way of bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform. With Boehner’s reiteration over recent days that he has no intention of bringing a bill that can’t receive the backing of the majority of Republicans to the floor, he’s essentially declaring the Gang of Eight bill dead on arrival. While some Democrats have implied there’s wiggle room here, I don’t see it, and I don’t think his fellow House members do, either. And I think that’s a primary motivator for Harry Reid’s push to vote sooner, while there’s still some momentum on his side.

Here’s what Boehner said Tuesday to the GOP Conference: “The only time any Speaker allows a major bill to pass without a majority of the majority is when there is zero leverage,” said Boehner, according to a source in the room… He conceded to doing it a “couple times, such as the fiscal cliff and hurricane relief, where we had no leverage, and we faced a worse alternative — politically or in terms of policy,” according to the source. “Let me be clear: Immigration is not one of these scenarios,” Boehner was quoted as saying. “We have plenty of leverage, and I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that will violate the principles of our majority and divide our conference. One of our principles is border security. I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that the people in this room do not believe secures our borders. It’s not going to happen.”

This isn’t Boehner’s desired outcome, of course – he has always been ready to cut a deal, as is his wont – but it’s understandable. His speakership might not survive a cave on this issue. And the truth is that despite the conventional wisdom about such conservative firewall positions since the 2012 election, the intransigence of Boehner and the House has been just about the only thing saving the Republican brand for the past six months with their existing base. Consider the House Republican reaction to the pressure on the sequester, on guns, and even in the context of the fiscal cliff negotiations. At each turn, Washington conventional wisdom has demanded they stop being “The Party of No”, pressing for a swift buckling of the conservative position as untenable and destructive, as if to say: You are beaten – don’t you know it? And at each turn, the House has held out in unexpected ways.

To a degree, this is driven by a Republican recognition that America’s opinion of Congress can’t go any lower – so they might as well do what their base wants in an environment where the path to a Democratic comeback is so unlikely. Presidential elections are the time to expand your appeal – midterms are about your base, not winning independents. If you were elected to pump the brakes, fulfilling that mission isn’t the politically damaging strategy Washington opinion seems inclined to believe.

What House Republicans should recognize is that the call for reform at any cost, of any kind, is coming only from the top down, not the bottom up (opinion on the Gang of Eight bill is split 52-45 at last count). They were elected not to support thousand page bills designed to please industry instead of solving policy problems, but to oppose them. This strikes me as not just wise, but necessary for their survival. Consider the alternative: say House Republicans had buckled on the sequester, on guns, and on immigration, in response to the calls from on high – would they go into the 2014 election with any brand left at all? 

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

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