John Boehner's announcement last week that the an immigration law change this year might be a bridge too far for his caucus to cross is very welcome news, both for the United States and for real immigration reform.
Those House Republicans who said "no" did their country and their party a great service. In doing so, they saved the country from a very divisive fight over an area that only 4 percent of the American public feels is an issue that Congress must tackle now. Instead, Americans have made very clear, repeatedly, that they want both parties to concentrate on the economy.
This, the president and his allies have refused to do, preferring instead to invest in what was to be Mr. Obama's legacy health care legislation, first to pass it, then to try and rescue it.
The Republicans, on the other hand had their own legacy concerns, summed up in the term "survival". Some party leaders worried that if they didn't pass legislation dealing with the country's 11.7 million illegal aliens, many of whom where family members and friends of the country's largest growing ethnic group, the party risked a rendezvous with irrelevance, to use Michael Gerson's evocative phrase.
Yet even Mr. Gerson, a moderate much in favor of "reform", had this to say about the timing:
There are, however, more serious criticisms about Speaker John Boehner's timing, even among those open to reform. Immigration reform is an issue that generally unites Democrats and deeply divides Republicans. Why emphasize those divisions — and highlight elements of the coalition seemingly intent on alienating Latino voters — while headed toward a midterm election? Why draw attention away from the failures of Obamacare by starting an internal GOP debate on immigration that is bound to be heated, even ugly?
Mr. Boehner, it seems, has bowed to the inevitable. However he should be appreciated for doing so. He understood, as Rep. John Flemming (R-La.) was quoted in that article as saying, that "it was not worth picking a fight that would almost certainly end with nothing accomplished."
Mr. Boehner might have adapted the Obama strategy for getting heath care through Congress when Scott Brown (R-Mass.) was elected senator from Massachusetts in a special election running on a platform of being the 41st vote against the legislation.
He did not and that is to his credit. Rather, he has allowed the House to proceed through its step-by-step process, holding hearings and discussing alternatives. In doing so, he educated his House members on the complex intricacies of immigration policy.
As a result, the next time immigration comes up in the House, Mr. Boehner and his caucus will start at a much different and more knowledgeable level.
Conservatives remain suspicious of Mr. Boehner's intentions. However, those suspicious are more correctly focused on the question of what an acceptable stance for House members would be rather than the speaker's intentions. On those he has been quite clear. At his weekly news briefing he said this (at 8:26, emphasis in original):
I have made clear for 15 months the need for the Congress and the administration to work together on immigration reform. It needs to get done. I'm going to continue to talk to my members about how to move forward, but the president is going to have to do his part as well.
There is no doubt that Mr. Boehner hoped he could find and build on common ground in the House among his caucus. There is no doubt he still does. There is no doubt that he thinks that immigration reform is an important issue both for his party and his county.
And on this he is right.