Today, the Senate voted for immigration reform by a seemingly overwhelming margin: 68-32. That might seem like a “B.F.D.” It's not. We’ve been here before: In 2006, the Senate voted for immigration reform by a 62-32 margin. The House killed it.
Today’s vote appears more impressive than the 2006 Senate vote. But back then, there were only 39 Democratic “yes” votes, compared to 52 today (independents excluded). As that implies, there was less Republican support for today’s bill than there was in 2006: Only 30 percent of Senate Republicans voted for today’s immigration bill, compared to 42 percent in 2006. Much of that decline is due to the loss of blue state Senate Republicans who were defeated in 2006 and 2008. But over the last seven years, just two Senate Republicans—Lamar Alexander and Orin Hatch—switched from “no” to “yes.”
Today’s vote shows congressional support for immigration reform breaking along roughly the same lines as 2006, when it failed to attract a majority of Republicans in the House—despite the backing of a Republican president. And unlike the Senate, the House hasn’t become more Democratic since 2006. In fact, it’s gotten more conservative.
So if the Senate bill can only attract 30 percent of Senate Republicans, it has no chance of earning 50 percent of the more conservative House GOP caucus—the threshold for overcoming the so-called “Hastert Rule.” In reality, the Senate bill would be lucky to even approach 30 percent of the House GOP caucus. In the fiscal cliff deal, for instance, only 30 percent of House Republicans supported the Senate compromise, even though 89 percent of Republican Senators were on board. Perhaps Boehner can craft a bipartisan immigration bill that attracts an even greater share of House Republicans. Probably not.
Which brings immigration back to the so-called “Hastert Rule.” Last week, Speaker Boehner suggested that he wouldn’t move an immigration bill without the support of a majority of House Republicans. If so, immigration reform is in jeopardy. The Speaker and House Republicans have few incentives—if any—to cave to immigration reform. When Boehner folded on the “Hastert Rule” in the past, many or maybe most House Republicans probably thought it was a good idea. No, they didn't like Sandy relief, VAWA, or the fiscal cliff compromise, but none of those bills were bad enough to justify stomaching the public backlash that would have accompanied outright blocking the legislation. In contrast, House Republicans appear authentically opposed to immigration reform. They also hail from safe, conservative districts where the Hispanic vote is unlikely to threaten their reelection campaigns.
So what's supposed to force the House GOP or Speaker Boehner to relent on immigration reform? Fear of losing the 2016 presidential election? A huge, backroom push from establishment insiders? It's possible that those incentives could convince Boehner to relent. But it's a gamble to pin the hopes of immigration reform on the procedural whims of the Speaker of the House, who has his own job to protect.