• The Ghost of Dennis Hastert: The former Republican speaker of the House decreed that any bill must command majority support among majority party members. Last month, House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio, waived the rule twice: To pass a measure avoiding the automatic spending cuts and tax increases known as the fiscal cliff and then for aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Boehner, along with most party leaders, understands his party’s serious difficulties with Hispanic voters and fears making matters worse by blocking an overhaul. Two of the most virulent anti-immigration Republicans in the House, Lamar Smith of Texas and Steve King of Iowa, no longer hold important committee chairmanships.
Yet with anti-immigration sentiment still running high among many Republican rank-and-file voters, it’s tough to imagine a majority of the party’s House members backing a comprehensive bill, even if, as is certain, the Senate goes first. Boehner’s only option might be to let a bill pass primarily with Democratic votes.
To do that, he would need the support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the whip, Kevin McCarthy; there’s no shrewder politician than McCarthy, who is always attuned to the party’s base. He’s also from California where, after Gov. Pete Wilson played the anti-immigration card in 1994, the Democrats completely dominate politics.
• Who is the Ted Kennedy or Rahm Emanuel? The successful, if flawed, passage of Obama’s health-care measure probably wouldn’t have been possible without the savvy hand of former White House Chief of Staff Emanuel. Congressional Democrats and some outside advocates see no Emanuel counterpart in the current White House; privately, some say they would like the White House to enlist a special envoy — perhaps former Housing Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros or former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle — to shepherd the legislation.
There was no more capable legislator or deal-maker than the late Senator Kennedy. Egos and tensions already are surfacing among supporters of reform; Republicans don’t trust the White House, and some Democrats worry that Marco Rubio, the ambitious young Republican senator from Florida, will look for a reason to peel off as he comes under pressure from his party’s right wing. There is no senator today who possesses Kennedy’s skill for navigating these shoals.
It’s still a slightly better bet that a big immigration bill will be enacted in this Congress. Getting there will be ugly, and the measure will seem to die more than once as it battles these cross pressures.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.