What the Debt Limit Hike Means for Immigration Reform

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House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to capitulate on the debt limit has the pro-immigration reform crowd excited about the prospects of congressional action. They shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Boehner (R-Ohio) announced Tuesday that the House will vote to raise the nation’s borrowing limit without preconditions demanded by his party’s rank and file. That means Boehner will have to rely on support from Democratic lawmakers, along with a handful of Republicans, to advance the bill.

Democrats on Capitol Hill and immigrant-rights advocates have long hoped that Boehner would use the same game plan to push an immigration overhaul through the House, where Republicans appear too divided over core policies to advance major reforms.

They’re particularly encouraged because Boehner’s move represents a significant shift away from the past two-plus years, during which Republicans have used the debt limit as a took the nation to the brink of default.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a co-author of the Senate’s immigration bill, noted Tuesday that on the debt limit, Boehner has “come to the realization” that it’s time to break with “the hard right.”

“We hope soon enough they’ll come to the same realization on immigration,” he said in a statement.

Other advocates chimed in, too.

But it won’t be that simple.

Boehner has long indicated he won’t movean immigration bill without a majority of Republican support, and it’s pretty clear that type of backing does not exist.

Wait, advocates say. Boehner has passed major legislation within the last year, like the fiscal-cliff deal, the Violence Against Women Act and a Superstorm Sandy aid package, without the backing of most Republicans. The House was also able to advance a bipartisan budget deal and farm bill, two contentious measures that were stunted by conservative opposition in the past.

So what sets immigration apart?

Those other measures could be considered “must-pass” bills, which are either time-sensitive or deal directly with critical functions of government. Republican leaders believed they had to move on those measures, or suffer a widespread public outcry.

It’s not apparent that most Republicans believe that immigration falls under that category.

GOP leaders clearly felt the need to release their immigration principles; they don’t want to be blamed for blocking a popular proposal without presenting an alternative. But last week, Boehner indicated there’s not an overwhelming appetite among the rank and file to to move forward on an actual bill, meaning that the immigration deadlock is likely to continue.

“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” the Speaker said at a press conference “It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”

Party elites and strategists rightly see the passage of immigration reform as a key element of the GOP’s effort to rebrand itself for Hispanic and Asian-American voters. They have played crucial roles in deciding the last two presidential elections, and that influence will grow in 2016 and beyond.

But in the midterms this fall, most Republican incumbents face a greater risk of a primary challenge from the right for backing an immigration overhaul, not losing a general election for opposing one.

Advocates are trying to change that equation. Several groups announced an effort on Tuesday designed to pressure GOP lawmakers in a handful of swing districts into backing reform.

“We want to get to yes, but they’ve gotten to no,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “And until they get to yes, they’re going to pay a price for getting to no.”

There’s still a chance that the House GOP will come to its senses and back an immigration overhaul, even a more limited proposal.

But don’t expect Republicans to jump at the prospect of passing one of President Obama’s top agenda items — immigration reform — after caving on the debt limit.