There has been a lot of wild speculation of late about what John Boehner is going to do on immigration reform. I say this not in a pejorative sense, because I've engaged in a bit of this wild speculation myself, I fully admit. Some say immigration reform is dead, reading a whole lot into one comment Boehner made last week. Some say (with perhaps-unjustified exuberance) that the passage of a clean debt ceiling bill signals that Boehner is ready and willing to take on the Tea Party and get things done, therefore immigration reform could follow the same route.
I'm going to ignore the main "will he or won't he" question for the time being, and instead concentrate on a wonkier subject: "when will he, if he does?" This stems from a piece of conventional Washington wisdom (which, I might add, I usually treat very gingerly, and always wash my hands afterwards) -- that John Boehner is waiting to introduce immigration reform until after the season of filing deadlines for the primary elections, to avoid Republican House members facing primary challenges from Tea Partiers. This qualifies as Washington conventional wisdom because the notion is being bandied about by both Lefties and Righties. Democrats and Republicans (those who want to see something done on immigration) agree that Boehner is just waiting for this magic window, while Republicans against immigration reform are using the same idea as a dire warning (mostly to spur fundraising). But has anyone really examined the primary schedule? Because it is a lot more spread out than might be expected. So the question becomes: does this window even really exist?
Assume for the sake of argument that this is precisely what John Boehner is trying to do: hold off on immigration reform until the filing deadlines are over, and then pass it quickly so that it won't bleed into the general election campaign. The only way to achieve this is to decide which states with very late filing deadlines don't matter to this calculus.
Seven states have already passed this deadline (Texas, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Alabama, and Indiana). For the strategy to work as designed, Boehner will have to wait until -- at the very earliest -- the end of March to introduce immigration reform. This will allow the committees time to work some bills out. It will also mean that 22 more states will have passed their primary election filing deadlines (making a total of 29). April doesn't have as many deadlines, but conceivably Boehner could wait until the end of April as well, allowing five more states (Tennessee, North Dakota, New York, Oklahoma, and Michigan) to be added to the list (totaling 34). But if immigration reform is actually going to pass this year, he can't afford to wait much longer than this. Perhaps until after May 2, which is the deadline in Florida.
This still leaves 15 states. But not a lot of them are Republican strongholds and even those that are don't have that many House members (they are: Massachusetts, Washington, Arizona, Wyoming, Alaska, Kansas, Wisconsin, Hawai'i, Minnesota, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Louisiana). Most of these have filing deadlines in June or later, making it impossible for Boehner to wait that long.
Now, I am not wonky enough to have at my fingertips the possibility of every Republican House district to have a Tea Party challenger, so I don't know which states could be more important than others, to Boehner's way of thinking. Just off the top of my head, though, I would think Florida would be important enough to wait for. But this leaves a further question unexplored -- how many of these districts will draw Tea Party challengers anyway, no matter what Boehner does (or doesn't do) on immigration? As I stated, I don't have the answer to that question. But I have to think that at least a few Tea Party primary House challengers will be out there, no matter what happens. Which could force Boehner to adjust his strategy, because then the issue becomes not the filing deadline but the date of the actual primary election itself.
If Boehner moves right after Florida's filing deadline, only two states will have held their primaries (Texas and Illinois). In Texas, the voting might not even be over, because there may be runoff elections at the end of May (a real possibility with any strong Tea Party challenger). And throughout the rest of May, 11 states will have primary elections (including some big states such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania). June's an even bigger month, with 18 primaries scheduled.
The conventional wisdom about Boehner's strategy is that he's seeking a window of opportunity to move on immigration reform, between the season of filing deadlines and the actual primaries. But because the states are spread out all over the calendar, this perfect window might not really even exist. Boehner's got to wait until the end of March before even half the states' filing deadlines have happened. If he waits until after April (even adding in Florida), he's still going to have to move before 15 states close their filing windows. And if he does wait until May 2 to get past Florida's filing deadline, then he runs right into the primary voting season, where the danger for Republican House members isn't just having a Tea Partier to run against, but brings up the real possibility that House members will get beaten by Tea Party candidates. The issue of immigration being front-and-center in the House would have to happen in the weeks leading up to most of the primary elections, after all.
This leads to a rather grim conclusion for those who want immigration reform to happen this year, and who are relying on the conventional wisdom that Boehner is just waiting for the perfect magic moment to push the issue onto the House floor. Because this perfect window of opportunity may not even exist. There may be no "good time" for Boehner to get Republicans to vote on immigration reform, in the end.
But perhaps I'm mistaken. After all, I did admit that I don't have information on which individual districts have Republicans with a genuine fear of getting primaried. But John Boehner does have this sort of information at his fingertips. So maybe -- just maybe, mind you -- he will be able to thread the needle and wait until the districts he's scared about Tea Party challengers have reached their filing deadlines, and still have enough time to push the bills through before the primary season really gets underway. But after looking hard at the calendar dates, I'm still not sure exactly when this might happen. That magic window may never even open, to put it another way.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant