Skip to main content

Will Speaker Boehner make history?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
July 1, 2013 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: All eyes have turned to the House to see if immigration bill will pass
  • Zelizer: This is a massive opportunity for House Speaker John Boehner to make history
  • He says Boehner has several tools to shore up support so the key legislation can pass
  • Zelizer: All speakers face historic turning points, and immigration is Boehner's

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- House Speaker John Boehner is facing a huge moment in his career.

Now that the Senate has passed the immigration bill, all eyes have turned to the House, where some right-wing members of the GOP are prepared to scuttle the bipartisan deal that has been carefully crafted in the upper chamber. According to Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, "We have a minority of the minority in the Senate voting for this bill. That's not going to put a lot of pressure on the majority of the majority in the House."

This is a test for Boehner, a massive opportunity for him to rebuild a languishing speakership.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

At this point, the verdict of history probably would not be very kind to him. Boehner has struggled to move legislation through his chamber, as the recent embarrassing failure of the farm bill showed. His biggest victories have primarily been symbolic, like the legislation dealing with abortion that has no chance of passing the Senate. If his goal is to bring together the various factions of his party into common accord behind key legislation, he has repeatedly failed.

How can Boehner have any success with immigration? After watching the collapse of the deal with farm legislation, it seems difficult to fathom how he can stitch together a majority that will stay on board with this bill. When the bet is between failure and success, most Washington observers would bet on failure.

Yet Boehner does have some tools at his disposal. Most importantly, he can work with external organizations to lobby House Republicans, namely, religious and business organizations. Both these groups have shown strong support for immigration reform and they have considerable clout in gerrymandered districts that President Obama can never reach.

A large number of religious groups, including evangelical Christians, have called on Congress to pass the reform. Ralph Reed, one of the most influential members of the religious right in recent years and who is the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said: "As people of faith, this is not just an economic and security issue; it is a moral issue. This bill, while not perfect, is an important starting point to reforming and modernizing U.S. immigration law so it reflects faith-based principles of compassion for the alien, the primacy of the family, respect for the rule of law, and protecting U.S. security and sovereignty."

Next step for immigration overhaul?
Can immigration overhaul pass House?

This strategy has worked before. When Southern Democrats were filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religious organizations helped the Johnson administration persuade Midwestern Republican senators to vote for cloture.

Business groups, traditionally a driving force for immigration liberalization, can also help Boehner. Given their immense clout within the party as well as within specific districts, business groups should flex their financial muscle to pressure members into voting yes.

Boehner needs to threaten House Republicans that he could work out a deal with Democrats and moderates in the party. Boehner has generally adopted a model of leadership in which he follows the lead of his caucus. If enough Republicans don't agree with a path to citizenship and believe that passing this legislation will threaten their majority, then he should follow their demands.

But another model of congressional leadership is to try to shape his caucus rather than having it shape him. As the Emory political scientist Randall Strahan detailed in his book, "Leading Representatives," there is a history of speakers, such as Henry Clay, Thomas Reed and Newt Gingrich, who have taken enormous risks to push their caucus in new directions.

This is a strategy that could produce historic legislation. This is the path that Speaker Tip O'Neill took, to the chagrin of many liberals, when he worked with President Reagan's administration to pass the tax cut of 1981. Rather than standing in the way of the tax cut, O'Neill decided to sign on and demanded goodies for Democratic constituencies. House Democrats, who had little love for Reagan, had little choice but to join their speaker, knowing that they were going to lose.

With the case of immigration, Boehner could enter into a dramatic bipartisan alliance that would leave him with much greater national clout. Even the threat of an alliance might be sufficient to move enough conservative House Republicans, who sense that defeat is inevitable and decide that they might as well win some credit for the victory.

Finally, there is always the power of pork. When Lyndon Johnson, as Senate majority leader, had to craft a deal over the Civil Rights Act of 1957, one of the tools he used to win over Western senators to vote in ways that were helpful to him was to convince Southerners to support a major water project in Arizona. Today, the tools of pork are not as voluminous. A stringent budget and limits on earmarks have taken away some of the tools that the leadership depends on. Yet there is still pork to go around.

While tea party Republicans allegedly don't like this, nothing could be further from the truth. In 2011, an investigation by Newsweek found how, despite their rhetoric, tea party Republicans have made the same kind of demands for money in their districts as others. Virginia's Eric Cantor, House majority leader, for instance, pressed for transportation funding in his home state even while deriding Congress for its spending habits.

All these tools offer Boehner some path and muscle to make the impossible possible. If the immigration bill goes down to defeat in the House it would be a huge blow to those desperately seeking a path to citizenship, to the national standing of the GOP and to Boehner. His power as a legislative leader would totally vanish, and other than tea party Republicans, there would be little support for him.

All speakers face historic turning points, and immigration is Boehner's. The outcome of the debates will overshadow all the budget wars and everything that follows. Whether the speaker is up to meeting this challenge remains to be seen in the coming weeks.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT