The push for comprehensive immigration reform has become a tale of three leaders and their contrasting styles.
There's President Barack Obama, who has brought his "leading from behind" approach home from the realm of foreign affairs to domestic politics. There are times when the country (abroad) or the president (at home) is so divisive that the better part of leadership is operating behind the scenes. Obama and his aides have stayed in close touch with the key players in the Senate and worked with them on the legislation but kept a low profile. "I think he's played the right role so far," Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the lawmakers pushing reform, said last week. "As a Republican it would be more difficult [if he were] out front and pushing this issue."
Flake is one of the four Senate Republicans in the so-called "gang of eight" that crafted the legislation. The highest profile lawmaker in the gang right now is the second key leader: Sen. Marco Rubio. The Florida legislator is a rising star whose trajectory – ambitious and eloquent first-term senator hoping to become the first member of his ethnic group to win the presidency – has been compared with Obama's. But at the moment he is exercising a nearly mirror opposite leadership approach to the issue.
Whereas the president is trying to keep his profile low so as not to scare off skittish Republicans, Rubio is trying to raise his to the point of being able to give them cover and credibility to support the final Senate bill. Having helped craft the legislation, he has very pointedly promoted conservative concerns about, for example, toughening border security provisions, nodding at the possibility of pulling out if worries on the right aren't ameliorated. It's a high-risk, high-reward balancing act. He's trying to find the balance point where the most Republicans can be brought onto the bill without losing Democratic support, trying to play the good cop to conservative bad cops in order to maximize leverage. And even if much of his explicit legislative angst with the bill he crafted is Beltway kabuki, as seems likely, he runs the risk of overpromising to one side or the other and so inadvertently sinking the effort.
And, in the longer term, he has to balance the upside of a major legislative accomplishment upon which he could hang his hat with 2016 general election voters with the downside of being the face of an "amnesty" bill that a vocal, intense portion of the GOP presidential primary electorate hates. A sign of the 2016 calculus is that one of Rubio's presumptive rivals in the Senate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has opposed a pathway to citizenship – a key requirement for Democrats – since the start, while the other, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, initially sounded open to a path but this week unsuccessfully tried to precondition it on certifying the border is secure. Paul has apparently concluded that opposition will play better in a primary than will support.
That calculation is not a luxury available to Rubio, who last weekend declared the bill to be 95 percent "perfect." But it may yet be possible for the third key leader, House Speaker John Boehner, whose approach to the issue has elements of Obama's (keeping his fingerprints off of the work product even as he consults on it) and Rubio's (using conservative bad cops to maximize his side's leverage). Boehner is the wild card who will likely ultimately decide the fate of immigration reform.
He proclaimed both publicly and privately this week that he would not violate the so-called Hastert Rule, an informal guideline that speakers should not bring legislation to the House floor if it does not enjoy the support of a majority of the party in power.
What else was Boehner going to say? Indicating otherwise would have undercut his chamber's negotiating position, not to mention his own standing within his conference. This wouldn't be the first time that Boehner has used his colleagues' conservative recalcitrance to pull the debate further to the right. (Recall the once and future debt ceiling crises.) And it also won't be the first time he's heard rumbles on the right questioning his loyalty to the cause, with the latest coming from California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher who called for Boehner's removal if he violates the Hastert Rule on this issue.
And he's doing this at a time when the GOP's right wing is robustly reasserting itself in the face of postelection discussion in some quarters about the party needing to reset itself. So following up on the House's voting last week to reverse President Obama's DREAM Act executive order, the chamber's Judiciary Committee this week passed the SAFE Act, which would criminalize illegal immigration, and a guest worker bill which opponents criticized as "partisan and extreme." This is a problem with the GOP's preferred piecemeal approach to immigration reform: It creates a steady, drip-drip-drip drumbeat reminding Latino voters why the GOP repels them.