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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT