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The dilemma is familiar by now: Congressional Republicans must join Democrats in reforming a dysfunctional immigration system to secure the GOP’s future as a viable national party. But the GOP's nativist wing tends to view any attempt to address the problem as a violation of conservatism’s core tenets. This quandary puts House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a bind. The more he moves the ball forward for the sake of the long-term interests of the party, as he did last week with the release of a "draft set of principles," the more he risks sacrificing party unity in the short term, not to mention his own re-election.
Boehner has proposed to House Republicans a set of measures that would provide "legal status" to an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants but would not provide a "pathway to citizenship." The proposal represents an incremental approach to reform, in contrast to the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate last year. Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who is a leading spokesperson for the tea party, has said “amnesty” is a deal breaker. The question now is whether "legal status" means the same thing to rank-and-file Republicans as amnesty.
A lot of attention has been paid to conservative "insurrectionists" who have threatened Boehner's speakership since the wave of victories for tea party–affiliated candidates in the 2010 elections. But much less attention has been paid to Boehner's House seat. He faces three primary challengers, all of whom believe compromise with Democrats on immigration represents a breach of trust. He is also under fire from national organizations affiliated with the tea party, such as ForAmerica, that have deep pockets and are antagonistic toward the more moderate GOP leadership. And unlike presidential cycles, midterm elections tend to draw extreme voters. So the clock is ticking. If Boehner acts now, he may lose his seat, but if he doesn’t act now, he may not have another chance to push through immigration reform and save his party.
When House Republicans shut the government down on Oct. 1, Boehner essentially gave the tea party caucus what it wanted: a showdown with the president over the Affordable Care Act. But neither that nor the 47 attempts to repeal Obamacare were good enough for the tea party faithful. On the same day the government shut down, a man by the name of J.D. Winteregg announced he would challenge Boehner on May 6 to represent Ohio's Eighth Congressional District. He joined two others: Eric Gurr, a businessman, and Matthew Ashworth, founder of the United Tea Party Alliance, a group affiliated with FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit organization with millions at its disposal to target Republicans who are perceived as insufficiently doctrinaire.
Human Events asked Republicans in Boehner’s district if he should ‘continue to support amnesty for illegal aliens.’ Seventy percent said no.
Of the three declared opponents, Winteregg appears to be the most serious threat. He avoids the inflammatory statements of some of his tea party associates, and he has impeccable conservative credentials. He cut his teeth working for the Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC founded by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who is now the head of the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank. The Senate Conservatives Fund was founded expressly to purge the GOP of perceived apostasy. October's government shutdown was the purest expression of its politics.
Few had heard of the Senate Conservatives Fund before last summer, when it mounted a campaign, led by Ted Cruz, to pressure House Republicans to "defund" Obamacare by shutting down the federal government (even though it would never have affected the law's implementation). The shutdown badly wounded the GOP’s approval ratings, but it catapulted Cruz into the national consciousness and to the forefront of contenders for the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination.
Winteregg benefited, too. After working with the Senate Conservatives Fund to coordinate "defund Obamacare" rallies in front of Boehner's home office, he announced his intention to challenge the speaker. Winteregg says he’s running because "people in the district are angry that Boehner has supported amnesty for illegal aliens" and has sometimes agreed with the president, according to reporting by Human Events.
Winteregg's prominent effort might also attract the funding he needs to win. National Review reported that the Tea Party Leadership Fund, a PAC, is prepared to spend $25,000 on a Boehner challenger. PAC spokesman Rusty Humphries said in a press release: “John Boehner has declared war on conservatives demanding lower taxes and limited government. Today we declare war on him. We intend to send a message to his fellow ‘Republicans in Name Only’ that such ideologically bankrupt leadership must come to an end.”
Winteregg has well-heeled allies, too. L. Brent Bozell, the nephew of conservative icon William F. Buckley, told CNN that ForAmerica, his political organization, has launched a "six figure" campaign called "Dump the Leadership" to topple ranking Republicans in the House and Senate that claims "an online army of over 4.5 million people." Bozell said: "It's been years. There is not a single conservative accomplishment this so-called leadership can point to."
Winteregg appears to have the wind at his back. Polls have long shown national disapproval of Boehner. More important to local politics, however, is a September survey conducted by Human Events that asked Republicans in Boehner's district if he should "continue to support amnesty for illegal aliens." Seventy percent said no.
"Amnesty," of course, is a vexed word, and Republicans who want to see movement on immigration do their best to avoid it. Yet Cruz has already said that immigration reform should only be about securing the borders and improving legal immigration. Whether you call it "legal status" or a "pathway to citizenship," it's amnesty to the tea party. Of course, a lot can happen between now and May 6, and Boehner continues to enjoy establishment support (Republicans in Butler County, Ohio, endorsed him last month).
Even so, the time to act may be now or never.
Update (4:19 p.m. ET): In his weekly news conference Thursday, Boehner said he now questions whether immigration reform can pass the House this year because of "widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws." In other words, his conference won't support granting "legal status," as Boehner proposed last week, to undocumented immigrants until the Obama administration secures the borders. This is a rather strange excuse, since the border has rarely been this secure. In 2012, the Obama administration poured $18 billion into border security and doubled the number of patrol agents.
The real problem for Boehner is that tea party Republicans believe any attempt to reform immigration is a violation of conservative principle. In proposing legislation that called for "legal status" but not a "pathway to citizenship," as the Senate bill does, the speaker was testing whether his conference considered "legal status" as meaning the same as "amnesty."
Evidently, it does.
Moreover, Boehner appears to be choosing his own fortunes over the fortunes of his party. He was risking not only his speakership by pressing forward with immigration reform but also his House seat. The more he pushed for reform, the more he jeopardized his future. Perhaps there is a way out of the Republican immigration dilemma. So far, it doesn't look good.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.