Erin Kelly and Deirdre Shesgreen report:
WASHINGTON — With pressure mounting on House Speaker John Boehner to tackle the politically and emotionally charged issue of immigration reform, activists on both sides of the debate are gearing up for a major legislative clash in 2014.
Boehner said last month that he was committed to pushing immigration legislation through the House. The West Chester Republican declined to set a timeline, but in a move that energized many pro-reform activists, he recently hired a new, well-regarded legislative aide to deal with the issue.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the hiring of the new aide – who formerly worked for Sen. John McCain of Arizona – is one of several signals the speaker may be willing to embrace some changes to current immigration law.
“This is a very important issue,” Boehner said at a Nov. 21 news conference. “There are a lot of private conversations underway to try to figure out how do we best move on a common-sense, step-by-step basis to address this.”
Boehner’s cautious tone hints at the political pitfalls of the immigration issue; depending on the outcome, House Republicans could enrage tea party conservatives, alienate Hispanic voters, or disenchant both camps.
“It’s a minefield for him,” Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration expert and professor of law at Cornell University Law School, said of Boehner’s immigration quandary.
On one side, Boehner has national GOP strategists telling him Republicans must do something to win over Hispanic voters and immigration reform is a good way to do that, Yale-Loehr said.
On the other side, hard-line House conservatives in heavily Republican districts will not support such a measure, and they could face a tea party-led backlash if they do.
Boehner: ‘I’m trying to find a way to get this thing done’
Experts also say the issue presents Boehner with an opportunity to shape the future of the Republican Party – as well as his own legacy.
If Boehner helps craft a compromise on immigration, it would give him a prominent role in the GOP’s efforts to woo Hispanic voters, one of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate, said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration at the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States.
Latinos voted for President Barack Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent, according to data from the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.