WASHINGTON — The immigration protesters advanced on the news conference, poking signs that read "Do Not Reward Criminals" and "No Amnesty!" over the heads of Republicans who had just finished speaking about finding a civilized tone in the year's most difficult debate.
As the politicians ducked out of camera range, one Hispanic pastor who had appeared with them, Becky Keenan, instead turned toward the protesters and took a photo. They began to yell at her. Keenan ignored them, quietly explaining why House Speaker John Boehner is bothering to pursue agreement on the headache that is immigration reform.
"If the Republican Party wants to regain the Hispanic vote, which they so miserably lost in the last election, they're going to have to let Latinos know they are wanted," Keenan, pastor of Gulf Meadows Church in Houston, said after the hubbub Wednesday had subsided. "They are going to have to deal with immigration reform."
Six months after Hispanics overwhelmingly helped return President Barack Obama to office and control of the Senate to Democrats, Boehner is helping lead the GOP effort to bite into that base of support — or at least stop alienating a demographic that accounts for 17 percent of the nation. That means getting a new policy on immigration, perhaps the most delicate political dance of Boehner's career.
Immigration separates Republicans from one another as much if not more than it separates them from Democrats. They don't trust Boehner to hew to the so-called Hastert Rule, named after former GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert, though it was more a goal than a set rule. During the eight years he ran the House, he had a policy of allowing votes only on those bills that were supported by a majority of Republican members.
Boehner has already disregarded his predecessor's policy three times this year — on the Violence Against Women Act, the "fiscal cliff" and aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy — letting Democrats drive the outcome of legislation in the GOP-controlled House. One Republican, California Rep. Dana Roherbacher, said he'd pursue Boehner's ouster were the speaker to break the majority rule on immigration.
The speaker reassured his caucus on Tuesday that he won't bring an immigration bill to the floor for a vote unless it has support from a majority of House Republicans, or allow a bill that lacks the border security provisions conservatives are demanding.
Twenty-four hours later, Boehner pirouetted to what participants said was his first-ever meeting with the liberal-leaning Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where he belabored the obvious: Any such bill that passes the House is not likely to be the last word on immigration reform. The Senate was working through its own bill, and any finished product was likely to be written by a bipartisan committee of House members and senators.
Boehner won raves and caucus members emerged predicting the bill would win a majority of both parties and become law by the end of the year.
"The meeting was wonderful," exclaimed Democratic Rep. Luis Guiterrez of Illinois.
"We are ready," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. "The speaker made it very clear that he'd like the House to be ready as well."
"It was a meeting that gives us a lot of hope," said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, the Hispanic Caucus chairman.
Boehner's hand-holding reflects the serious political stakes for his party after it failed to regain the presidency last fall and suffered net losses in both the Senate and House. More than a year out from yet another election with all 435 House seats on the ballot, the dilemma that faces him on immigration reform reflects a party-wide conundrum: how to draw in new voters, especially Hispanics and women, without alienating conservatives who make up the GOP's base?
The answer, according to a report the Republican National Committee commissioned in the wake of the 2012 election, rests in large part on the GOP agreeing to an overhaul of immigration law that provides some mechanism for providing legal status to millions of immigrants who either crossed into the country illegally or overstayed their visas.
"We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," the report said. "If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink."
Whatever the final legislation looks like remains the question tying up Congress. Obama has placed the issue at the top of his domestic agenda but has maintained a low profile so as not to become a lightning rod for opponents. Polling suggests most Hispanic registered voters have a more negative impression of the GOP than of the Democratic Party.3 comments on this story
Illustrating the divide within Boehner's House majority, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an immigration hard-liner, convened a six-hour news conference outside the Capitol to highlight opposition to an Obama-endorsed Senate bill that could come to a final vote next week. People in the crowd held signs opposing "illegal aliens" and criticizing Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a conservative author of the Senate bill, as "Obama's Idiot."
Keenan, who had attended the Republican news conference just across a driveway from the King event, shook her head at the protesters but didn't engage them.
"A lot if it is fear-based," she said.