WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner may have won room to maneuver with his conservative members when it comes to fiscal matters, but that doesn't mean the most powerful Republican in the country will fight members of his own party for an immigration law overhaul — no matter how hard advocates wish it to be true.
Democrats and many supporters of a decade-old effort to regularize immigrants already in the country have seized on December's bipartisan budget deal as proof "comprehensive reform" is suddenly back on the table for Congress.
"For the first time Speaker Boehner has said he won't let the minority of his caucus, the tea party minority, run the show," Sen. Charles Schumer said of an immigration overhaul's chances during an interview on ABC's This Week.
It's an argument common among supporters of the Senate's bipartisan, comprehensive measure: No longer fettered by outside groups, Boehner will find a way to move legislation through the House and begin negotiations with the Senate. That, in turn, will result in a bill closer to the upper chamber's measure that overhauls the legal immigration system, boosts border security, and provides the 11 million undocumented migrants with a pathway to citizenship.
But veterans of Capitol Hill and Republican aides — even those sympathetic to advocates' hopes — warn that in reality even if Boehner is able to move legislation it won't look much like the Senate's bipartisan bill and that a narrower compromise could be worse than no action at all.
"There's just no way they're going to get it," said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who has also worked with a number of immigration reform groups.
"My worst fear is the speaker gets his act together and moves some of these [smaller bills] … and then they tell the Senate 'take it or leave it,'" he argued.
"The groups at that point are going to have to make a decision," Manley said, warning that accepting a partial deal will almost certainly mean comprehensive reform will once again be delayed for years.
One activist deeply involved in the effort to push through comprehensive reform agreed. This activist, referring to colleagues with a renewed sense of hope as the "grasping at straws crowd," insisted Boehner's willingness to oppose outside conservatives, his hiring of a former immigration aide to Sen. John McCain, and other "evidence" of a thawing on the issue should be seen as warning signs.
Boehner is trying to see if he can "buy off the coalition groups that are desperate for a bill with something significantly less [than the Senate's plan] … is it possible to settle something for pennies on the dollar," the activist said.
For instance, Republicans appear close to acquiescing to citizenship for "dreamers" — people who were brought to the United States illegally as children but who have become productive members of society, attending high school and college or entering the military. Majorities in both parties agree the dreamers should be given citizenship, and they have become the public face of the movement's struggle.
Republicans could, in theory, agree to give dreamers an expedited path to citizenship, halt deportations, and give legalized status to other immigrants — without the possibility of eventual citizenship.
Manley and others said they worry an effort to split the baby in such a way could bring enough Democrats, Republicans, and some national reform organizations to send something to President Obama's desk.
Given the difficulties of building momentum for such sweeping reforms, that could doom the chance for broader reforms in the coming years — or even decades. "There's not a snowball's chance in hell that Congress is going to take up this issue in the near future," Manley said.
"The best you get is a bill that halts deportation and a bill that is going to be semi-permanent … you're not going to get a second crack at it," the activist agreed.
But these scenarios assume that something more than political posturing will happen in 2014, which is far from certain.
Indeed, there are a host of reasons why prospects for immigration aren't any rosier, regardless of whether Boehner is no longer playing nice with groups like Heritage Action.
For one, House action would likely depend on the efforts of Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, who has emerged as one of the chief Republican voices advocating for immigration reform. With Ryan potentially tied up in ongoing budget and fiscal negotiations, the heat of a protracted immigration debate may prove too much this year.
Obamacare may play a role too. Immigration reform advocates acknowledge the health care law could create problems for the cause, if Republicans continue to see it as a pathway to electoral success in 2014. "Obamacare helps [opponents of the law if] Republicans feel like they can put off their long-term problems," one activist said.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, however, said a second outcome is that the fight over Obamacare could help advocates' plans "because [Republicans] can keep pushing the Obamacare battle, and they could [then] be more willing to take a risk."
But the most important reason reform isn't any more likely is clear: While Boehner and his leadership team may be inclined toward handling immigration reform, they've made clear they won't back a comprehensive bill.
Rather, Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor remain committed to their strategy of moving a series of smaller measures — a position that hasn't changed for months. Similarly, Boehner has also repeatedly told his conference he won't use one of the smaller bills as a Trojan Horse for the Senate bill — meaning if the two sides enter into negotiations, the House will refuse to discuss issues beyond those incorporated in the smaller bill.
Republican leadership aides have repeatedly said those positions remain in place.
Although that stance has been seen as a death blow to reform, Democrats and some activists insist that Boehner's newfound willingness to buck conservatives means there may be some wiggle room.
"The House has figured out what they're not for, and most of that is process," said Sharry. "I think the most accurate thing to say [about reform's chances] is that there is a group of Republicans in the House, including leadership, who want to get it done, but they don't know how."