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On immigration reform, House GOP could learn from "Angry Birds"

This post originally appeared in National Journal.

House Republicans on Wednesday held the most consequential backroom skull session on the domestic issue that will define President Obama's second term.

If immigration reform passes, Obama will remain a powerful legislative force, and prospects for additional accomplishments on budget, taxes, and national security (though difficult) will be enhanced. If immigration reform fails, Obama's lame-duck status will commence and irreversibly limit White House legislative ambitions.

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This was true before Obama decided to delay for one year mandatory business compliance with the individual mandate in his health care law. But that delay has not only raised questions about the scope of presidential power (how often can Obama whimsically waive or ignore portions of a law he or a special-interest group find discomforting?), it also has solidified opposition throughout the House Republican Conference to any form of comprehensive immigration reform.

The piecemeal approach in the House is the only path to an immigration deal. That means the chamber will not complete its work until late this year at the earliest and probably not until early next year--if ever.

Setting aside politics for a moment, the process may matter more. Because if Republicans want to go to conference with the Senate on immigration, the means by which they get there will, in large measure, determine the outcome. That's where Angry Birds, at least metaphorically, comes in.

House Republicans will start this month with a border-security bill drafted by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas. McCaul echoes his colleagues' sentiments when he derides the last-minute Senate border-security amendment as a "bunch of candy" thrown in to "attract votes." The core of the House GOP approach to immigration reform will start with border security. If it achieves coherence and success there, it may set the table for action for other parts of immigration reform. But the House GOP will start slowly and see if it can generate more momentum. Think of it as renewable energy Republicans might actually like. One experienced GOP lobbyist very close to the House GOP leadership approach described matters this way: "They have to start with the easiest (relatively speaking) parts and move onto the next level of difficulty. It's a little like a legislative game of Angry Birds, where each stage gets progressively more complicated and dangerous. And the pigs get bigger. But to win you have to earn more stars."

As with most important cultural trends in America, I know little about and have no experience with Angry Birds. But as I understand it, the game requires birds to destroy pigs in pursuit of eggs. As things get more difficult, more birds with varied skills and talents become available, but the pigs grow larger and more resilient. But let me also focus on the "Angry" side of the metaphor, because it's crucial to understanding the gut-level attitude that House Republicans have toward the Senate immigration bill.

"The Senate bill has zero momentum," a top House GOP leadership aide told me. "We will not rush through a massive bill that hands massive new resources and powers over to a federal government that has shown itself unable to guard civil liberties or effectively manage those powers and resources."

That sounds angry.

At this stage, other top House GOP aides will only predict passage of a border-security bill. They are uncertain about the other policy dimensions--any other dimension of immigration reform--including some form of a Dream Act, future flow for legal workers in agriculture, service or high-tech sectors, student visas, or employer verification. House Speaker John Boehner has declared nothing will move off the floor without a majority of votes from the 234-member Republican conference. That is known as the "Hastert Rule," for the former GOP speaker. Right now, border security appears to be the only bill that can meet that test. At this stage, no one knows what the House will send the Senate for a conference committee to settle all immigration issues. If the House passes only border security, it concedes a vast array of policy to the Senate bill. That may be where House GOPers land, staking everything on border security to drive the hardest bargain. A very limited game of Angry Birds.

Complicating these strategic decisions is the embedded sense among House Republicans that House Democrats want immigration reform to fail.

"Nothing will go far enough for them," another House GOP aide told me. "[House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi either wants a total victory or an issue to beat us up with. It is clear the House Democrats want to tank this."

More anger.

Whether this is true or not does not seem to matter. That House Republicans believe it to be true means it will to some degree guide their decisions on timing, policy, and politics.

One last thought on politics. House Republicans see a 70-70 rule guiding their political calculations. One Republican summarized it this way: Trying to woo roughly 10 percent of the electorate (Latinos) that voted 70 percent for Democrats is not as wise as working in common cause with 70 percent of the electorate that voted 70 percent for Republicans (whites).

House Democrats see the problem differently, of course, and believe that Boehner's fate hangs in the balance.

"Boehner will not be speaker anymore if he breaks the Hastert Rule," a top House Democratic leadership aide told me. "I think that is absolute. I also believe Boehner will have to get very close on a conference report on a majority of House Republicans or his speakership is over. Given the nature of the House GOP membership, that would make any meaningful bill extremely unlikely."

The last important question is whether outside pressure can or will nudge House Republicans toward the Senate bill. "The idea that any entity in the business community, or all business entities combined, can force us in a direction we do not want to go is laughable," said a House GOP legislative strategist. "They have absolutely zero juice compared to Republican primary voters. If this is what [Sen. Chuck] Schumer [of New York] and his crew believe, they have zero idea of the thought process in our conference and, as a result, zero endgame."

Zero endgame. I don't know if that is a category in Angry Birds. But it is one in legislative politics, and it doesn't portend success.

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